Today there is mounting pressure for government tenure reform, a mark of the centrality and dynamism of the rural tenure issue. In part, rural populations themselves are responsible for this pressure, as land sits idle and grossly unequal land holdings coexist uneasily with landlessness, poverty, and the hovering specter of hunger in many parts of the developing world.
Additional impetus comes from research showing that unequal access to land and other productive assets is a defining feature of persistent poverty (Riddell 2000). Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argues that the lack of a well-defined system for recording, transferring, and enforcing the property rights of the poor is a major source of continued poverty, since it does not allow the poor to make use of their assets for collateral and credit, thus barring them from productive investments (de Soto 2000).
These and other findings have contributed to a growing consensus that establishing secure property rights and making rural land markets work for poor farmers and rural producers is one of the keys to effective poverty reduction. In fact, de Soto goes so far as to predict that the countries that achieve substantial economic progress over the next two decades will be those that have developed strong property rights institutions (Riddell 2000).
Against this backdrop, tenure reform has emerged as an essential component of a broader sociopolitical transition to greater democracy and decentralization in developing countries. Governments are starting to recognize that customary, community-based tenure systems are legal in their own right. They are beginning to put these systems on an equal legal footing with Western, individualized property rights (Alden Wily et al. 2000). Tenure reform movements are active in all regions of the developing world, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Central and Eastern Europe, with dozens of countries initiating major tenure-reform efforts in the past decade. For example, Thailand has recently completed a major initiative to provide the country’s rural population with access to modern land registration, deeds, and credit institutions (Riddell 2000). Mexico has undertaken reforms to strengthen land and credit markets and improve the access to land among poorer households (Carter 2003:52).
Whether tenure reforms positively or adversely affect the poor depends on who designs and ultimately implements them. The extent to which the interests of the poor are represented and promoted by national and local institutions