Land as a lens for future-facing human rights advocacy

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

That the world has a finite amount of land becomes more apparent by the day. By mapping trends in who owns and shapes land, rights practitioners can unlock strategic approaches to advocacy: from the right to adequate housing to non-discrimination and inequality to the rights of nature. Two dimensions are important: strengthening transparency and accountability around ownership and challenging the status quo—advancing creative new approaches to how humans value and imagine our relationship to land. 

The first step in generating a clearer picture of land ownership and financing patterns is not easy. Obfuscation comes from poorly maintained cadastral records (official records of real estate parcels), as well as from procedural and financial barriers to accessing and interpreting them. It also comes from the often intentionally complex and hidden chains of ownership. Yet innovation is underway in all regions. 

Strategies include mapping “up” from real estate companies to their beneficial owners. This was the strategy that 10 Tooba’s Built Environment Observatory applied with its study “Who Owns Cairo,” designed to answer the question: “With vacant unutilised land being a famously abundant resource in Egypt, why is that affordable housing as a service, and as a right, is still beyond the reach of many?”

Several organizations—from Nairobi to Copenhagen—are working to interpret cadastral records and make their information more easily understood and used. They are making the case that more transparent cadastral data can facilitate effective urban planning and pushing for legislation to require the disclosure of beneficial owners in real estate. Others—such as JustFix in New York City and Observatori DESC in Barcelona—engage tenants in participatory research to trace evictions and poorly maintained buildings to the landlords behind them.

Once ownership patterns are brought to light, a picture emerges that can shape advocacy and campaigns. This work also opens up the opportunity for alliances between fields—for example, between groups working on open government, tax justice, and environmental impacts like illegal forestry and fishing or between those working on anti-corruption and the right to housing.

A common thread is that more land than one might think is still publicly owned despite a global trend of selling off to private owners. This means strategic advocacy can focus on the ways city, regional, and national governments maintain, use, and develop the land they control, drawing on rights-based principles such as non-discrimination in access and benefits and the right to a healthy environment.

Research also unveils the role of major local developers and land-owning families, as well as international investors. For example, China’s now-bankrupt developer Evergrande had received over $20 billion in bond financing from banks and asset managers like HSBC, Goldman Sachs, and BlackRock. Its debt-driven bankruptcy has left thousands of unfinished apartments in its wake and has decimated families’ savings. 10 Tooba’s research on Cairo revealed dimensions that include the government-facilitated concentration of land ownership into a handful of major real estate companies and investment into these firms by the sovereign wealth funds of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Norway.

Land ownership patterns are also inextricably tied up with energy development, climate response, and the growth of big tech. In Guyana, the extraction of newly found oil has been accompanied by rising land prices and a construction boom. Globally, the expansion of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, comes with its own conflicts over land, and tech firms are increasing their real estate footprints to develop energy-hungry data centers. Cases of real estate investors seeking to take advantage of climate-related and other disasters abound—from Hawaii to South and Southeast Asia

As projects “reclaiming” land from the oceans gain steam, such as those in the Maldives, Nigeria, and Germany, fundamental human rights questions arise around who benefits from the revenue generated by developments on this newly formed land, as well as knock-on risks such as increased flooding for adjacent—often informally housed or low-income—communities. Within any change in the ownership of land lies a story about the kind of future being built and who gets to be a part of it.

It is critical for advocates to continue revealing and contesting existing and deepening structures of concentrated land ownership and their implications for human rights. Just as important is expanding the space for collective, custodial, and creative approaches to how land is perceived and valued. We must collectively move away from the notion of land as a wealth extraction machine and towards interpretations of land as a common good on which all of our lives and well-being depend. Doing so does not mean an end to property rights but viewing them through a perspective of justice, the environment, and interconnectedness.

The first step is the recognition and protection of existing land rights, including those of Indigenous peoples. Rights and Resources has estimated that Indigenous peoples and local communities (for example, Afro-descendant communities in the Caribbean region of Colombia, farming communities in Uganda, and forestry collectives in China) hold as much as 65% of the total world’s land area under customary systems, yet governments only formally recognize their rights to a fraction of that area. 

Expanding who has access to land rights in rural and urban contexts can begin to reverse systemic discrimination. Globally, for example, women comprise 43% of the global agricultural workforce but under 15% of rural landholders. In the United States, 96% of all private agricultural land is owned by white people, while in urban areas and towns, redlining and other policies have perpetuated segregation. The diversification of ownership can involve other collective or community-based strategies. In many countries, community land trusts seek to protect against displacement and increased housing costs. Widening the lens still further would involve abandoning the idea of land as a patchwork of separately identified and owned pockets, redefining it as an interconnected system characterized by the deep dependence of each piece of land on all that surrounds it.

Power struggles over land are at the core of human experience. They have implications across the full range of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. With escalating climate change, urbanization, and conflict, it is more important than ever to engage strategically, collectively, and creatively with our relationship to land.