Since the advent of International Development, the need to alleviate the plight of smallholders globally has been a stubborn spectre at the ODA feast. From Walt Rostow in 1959 to the present day, the issue of land rights has been difficult to keep on the agenda of both Aid Agencies and Governments. A combination of the subject’s extreme technical complexity, its political sensitivity in “neo feudal” contexts like Bangladesh, and the still discernible whiff of being “radical” or “ideologically suspect” (this a hangover from the Cold War), have all contributed to the consistently haphazard and partial engagement with the subject by development actors, albeit with a few honourable exceptions.This is in spite of many decades of research that demonstrate how important rights to land are in solving a swathe of key development problems in agrarian and semi-agrarian contexts.
It is twenty-eight years since Bina Agarwal made the seminal case for women’s rights to land as the prerequisite for gender equality in South Asia (Agarwal, 1992). The relevance to Bangladesh, where only about 4% of 20 million holdings are owned by women, could not be plainer. The general link between poverty alleviation and equitable access to land has been demonstrated in a number of studies, not least by the World Bank in 2003 (Deininger, 2003). In Bangladesh, where 22 percent of rural agri-dependent families are completely landless,and more than 40 percent are “functionally landless” as per the Government’s definition (owning 10 decimals or less) the potential of land reform to address poverty is similarly clear,particularly thorough implementation of national laws concerning Khasland distribution (Islam, 2011).
In 2010 the then Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, laid thecause of continuing global hunger and malnutrition firmly at the door of increasing landlessness, going so far as to argue that the Right to Food is coming to imply a Human Right to Land (de Schutter, 2010). This has obvious implications for Bangladesh, where the absolute number of landless people has tripled since the Liberation War. Turning to inequality, Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) and associated organisations highlighted the obvious point that in Bangladesh inequality cannot be addressed without due attention to land rights in a joint submission to the National Consultation concerning the High-Level Political Forum 2019 Report on SDG 10. This is of particular relevance in view of the grim fact that inequality is getting worse in Bangladesh, a trend labelled as both ‘disquieting and overwhelming’ by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in 2016, when the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics revealed that the income share of the poorest five percent of our population was 0.23% of overall income, a sharp fall from 2010 when it was 0.78% (Manusher Jonno Foundation, 2019).
Eagle eyed readers will have noted that that is now four SDGs covered (1, 2, 5 and 10), which some would argue should be more than enough to ensure the prioritisation of land rights by all concerned stakeholders. Emerging research suggests that we can now safely add another SDG into the mix, with huge implications for the country’s future: SDG 13, “Climate Action”. In November of last year, the New York Times ran a profile of Narasimha Rao, a Professor at Yale University whose work focuses on how eschewing aggregate GDP growth targets in favour of meeting the minimum needs of the poorest has significant implications for mitigating climate change (Schlossberg, 2019). Simply put, by focusing efforts on ameliorating inequality within and between countries, we stand a better chance of both achieving mitigation outcomes and also create societies that are truly resilient to those physical changes in the environment that are already taking place.
It has long been accepted that equity is a key concern when addressing climate change, in that poorer countries and poorer people are more vulnerable to its effects. This direct link between addressing inequality as a means to combat climate change is new and poses the unavoidable public policy challenge that Bangladesh has to tackle its inequality problem in order to become climate resilient and it cannot do this while dodging the land issue. Land rights for the poorest and most marginalised are essential if the worst impacts of a changing climate are to be avoided.
The advocacy agenda for realising these rights is not new. Rather, it is the result of decades of painstaking and diligent work by scores of dedicated Bangladeshi NGOs and concerned civil society figures, including MJF and its partner NGOs like Uttaran, Nijera Kori, COAST, VERC, etc. This long-standing agenda includes the distribution of Khas land to the landless according to sensible, existing national laws (Barkat et al, 2001); the return of Vested Property to the vulnerable minorities from whom it was taken (Barkat et al, 1994); the recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their ancestral land; careful work with communities to realise the benefits of a Uniform Civil Code (Pereira, Huda and Hossain, 2019), and the reform of land administration to make it more transparent, accessible and accountable to the citizens of the country (Khan, 2013).
There is another side to this coin for development practice. Until the land issue is resolved, donor-funded interventions have the potential to make things worse. Consider any intervention regarding agriculture; insofar as this “improves” the land it will disproportionately benefit the land-owner, which under present conditions will most likely exacerbate inequality rather than reduce it. Conservation is another major issue; while conflicts remain between the Forestry Department and forest dwelling communities, including many indigenous peoples, donor-funding for conservation initiatives will most likely continue to entrench exclusionary policies that further the marginalisation and exclusion of such groups. Evidence from other contexts around the world supports the argument that recognising the land rights of forest dwellers can actually improve conservation outcomes, countering the dominant and colonial-era narrative that the latter are responsible for deforestation.
Our intention here is not to engage in the proven folly of selling silver bullets, but rather to argue that land represents the “limiting factor” across a number of key public policy agendas including climate change resilience. Progress has obviously been possible in spite of the continuing absence of land rights, but it will be impossible for Bangladesh to build sufficient resilience to a changing climate unless this issue is comprehensively addressed. To put it another way, as stated by the United Nations’ OHCHR, land rights constitute the essential precondition for the realisation of other human rights.
This is why Manusher Jonno Foundation and the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh’s Centre for Sustainable Development are partnering on a new research project on land rights, funded by the Jean Monnet component of the European Union’s Erasmus+ framework. With a wide network of partners from the international level to the grassroots here in Bangladesh, including Dublin City University, Wageningen University and Research,Uttaran, Nijera Kori, COAST, VERC and Mukti Foundation, this marks another step forward in MJF’s mission, alongside its dedicated and courageous partners, to protect the rights of the smallholder and the landless. We hope that the project will provide more evidence to support our case that land rights are essential for the country’s progress, not least in the looming battle against a changing climate.
Shazzad Khan is Senior Programme Co-ordinator (Rights) at Manusher Jonno Foundation.
Oliver Scanlan is a Research Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.