Sustainable Development Goals

Tenure rights

  • The eradication of hunger and poverty and the sustainable use of natural resources depend in large part on how people, communities and others gain access to land, fisheries and forests. Access to natural resources is defined and regulated by tenure rights.

  • Secure tenure rights are crucial for the eradication of hunger and poverty, environmental sustainability and the promotion of responsible investments. Inadequate and insecure tenure rights to natural resources often result in extreme poverty and hunger.

  • Pressure on land and other natural resources and tension over tenure arrangements are increasing as new areas are cultivated to provide food, feed and fibre for a rapidly growing world population.

  • Responsible governance of tenure is a fundamental factor in improving tenure conditions. The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security is an essential mechanism in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.


Tenure rights represent the recognition by society that specific people, as individuals or groups, are entitled to use or control particular natural resources in certain ways. They range from ownership to rights often used for subsistence by the poor, such as rights to gather firewood or to forage tree crop plants. As the rules of tenure tend to develop in ways that establish power relations in a society, the more vulnerable members and groups tend to hold weaker and more insecure forms of tenure rights. Tenure arrangements also reflect the distribution of power within households, which often results in discrimination against women.

The livelihoods of many of the poor are diversified and are often dependent on access to different natural resources. Today, the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors employ one billion people, and the food sector provides direct and indirect livelihoods to 2.6 billion. Land is usually the most important asset, given that most rural households depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

A crucial element is the governance of tenure. This determines if and how people, communities and others are able to acquire rights and associated duties to use and control land, fisheries and forests. In fact, many tenure problems arise because of weak governance, and attempts to address tenure problems are affected by the quality of governance. 

Key challenges

Weak governance of tenure hinders economic growth, social stability and the sustainable use of natural resources and the environment. People can be condemned to a life of hunger and poverty if they lose their tenure rights to their homes, land, fisheries and forests because of corrupt tenure practices or if administrative agencies fail to protect their tenure rights. People may even lose their lives when weak tenure governance leads to violent conflicts.

Tenure reforms are frequently needed to improve tenure arrangements. In the past few decades, land reforms have contributed to reducing gross inequality of access to rural land rights. As a result, some 1.5 billion people are less poor and many have improved security of tenure and strengthened tenure rights. Despite this, poor and vulnerable people around the world continue to have limited access to natural resources upon which their livelihoods depend.

The conditions of tenure affect how farmers and others decide to use the land and whether they will invest in improvements:

  • Inappropriate tenure policies and inequitable access can result in over-cultivation and over-grazing of marginal lands. Tenure reforms can promote land use practices that enhance the management and sustainability of natural resources;
  • Farmers are more likely to invest in improving their land through soil protection measures, planting trees and improving pastures if they have secure tenure rights and can expect to benefit from their investments over the longer term;
  • Women make essential contributions to agriculture; yet across all developing regions, women consistently have tenure rights that are often less secure, more limited or are gained through others, such as male family members.

What needs to be done?

The Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, endorsed by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in May 2012, is the first comprehensive intergovernmental global instrument on tenure and its administration. The purpose of these Voluntary Guidelines is to serve as a reference and to provide guidance for improving “the governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests with the overarching goal of achieving food security for all and to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security”.

The Guidelines offer a framework that Members can use when developing their own strategies, policies, legislation, programmes and activities. They allow governments, civil society, the private sector and citizens to judge whether their proposed actions, and the actions of others, constitute acceptable practices.

The Voluntary Guidelines were initiated by FAO and finalized through consultative and inclusive inter-governmental negotiations under the auspices of the CFS, and with the participation of civil society and the private sector. Implementation of the Guidelines has been encouraged at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012, by the UN General Assembly, the G20 and the G8, the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie and at the Berlin Agriculture Ministers' Summit.

FAO has established an implementation programme at global, regional and country levels which is supported through voluntary contributions from its resource partners. However, successful implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines will need the participation of all stakeholders (governments and their technical agencies, civil society, private sector including investors and professional organizations, universities and research institutes, international financial institutions, regional organizations, UN and its agencies, and resource partners). This will require strengthened cooperation and partnerships between these various actors.



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