With surging international, national, and subnational policy attention to land tenure security (LTS) in developing countries in recent years, it is timely to ask: What have been the effects of thousands of efforts to improve it in dozens of developing countries? To date, almost all efforts to answer this question have been relatively small-scale, discrete studies within the boundaries of a single country.
A meta-analysis (study of studies) published in Nature Sustainability titled “Influence of land tenure interventions on human well-being and environmental outcomes” concludes that, on average, the effects tend to be beneficial. There is strong support for the finding that strengthening LTS is, on the whole, associated with positive human well-being outcomes – particularly through land formalization. There is also a positive association between strengthening of LTS and desirable environmental outcomes, but the finding is not as strong.
The meta-analysis synthesizes the findings of 117 quantitative studies, conducted from 1990 to 2018 in 42 countries. Approximately half the studies are of “high rigor” in the sense of being randomized control trials, or involving the use of a difference-in-difference approach, counterfactuals, or control groups. Of the 117 studies, 92 look at human well-being outcomes, 48 at environmental outcomes and 23 at both.
The authors acknowledge that the aggregation of studies, large as it is, may give disproportionate attention to some subjects and approaches at the expense of others. For example, there is strong attention to agriculture to the partial exclusion of nomadic, pastoralist, and indigenous populations. A strong focus on titling tends to obscure attention to devolution, information campaigns, conflict resolution, and strengthening the governance of customary institutions.
Tenure conditions and institutions vary enormously not only across but also within countries, but several countries account for a disproportionate share of the 117 studies. Among the possible reasons for this geographical skew are conjunctural and time-specific conditions that made certain countries the focus of research scrutiny, whereas other countries got less attention because of unfriendly institutions and challenging research environments.
The study concludes there is much that remains to be known about the effects of LTS. Given this and the high and growing importance of tenure on an increasingly crowded planet, the authors call for more research. An integrative approach, looking both at well-being and environmental outcomes, is a priority given the potential for rich insights and the dearth of such research to date. Shining a light on countries either insufficiently or not yet examined is also deemed important. Other priorities include conducting research over a longer period (inter alia to get better insights on environmental outcomes), having more studies with a “high rigor” approach, and giving more attention to effects on biodiversity, and to the indirect impacts of LTS.
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