More and more land, but not enough in sight

23rd October 2015 Roman Rollnick

Roman Rollnick looks into how finding sufficient land to house and feed the world’s largest and fast growing regional population, is one of the biggest problems confronting the Asia and Pacific region

Leading experts on what is one of the most complex and controversial financial and development equations facing the world, met to discuss this in October at the sixth Asia-Pacific Urban Forum, a gathering convened every four years by UNESCAP, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Keynote speaker David Mitchell, said it was becoming more urgent than ever to find better sustainable solutions in a region already home to 20 of the world’s 35 megacities, where one in three people still live in slums, without tenure of security.

Mitchell, a professor in land administration and management at Melbourne University, has conducted research focused on the impact of climate change and natural disasters on land tenure, and how responsible land governance can help.

He told the meeting that ensuring land tenure rights, and effective land use planning and control, can enhance climate resilient cities. The author of over 40 publications on research into climate change, natural disasters and land administration, he said:

“Much land settlement is informal, and there are many landless.”

SDG 5, the Sustainable Development Goal in quest of gender equality and empowering all women and girls, is a cornerstone to helping solve this crisis through the promotion of tenure security and the right of women to land, which varies from country to country and according to culture.

The meeting on managing land under the New Urban Agenda was convened by the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN), UN-Habitat with the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG), the World Bank, ANGOC/Land Watch Asia, Habitat for Humanity, the regional arm of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG-ASPAC), and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Experts told the meeting that the economic success of Asia and the Pacific had come with social costs directly related to land access, and carrying environmental costs. They were weary about what some at the meeting called “the elephant in the room”, a reference to the big businesses able to buy up and finance the development of land and property, especially in cities.

Mitchell said that women and vulnerable groups often missed out on the gains of development or were maginalised, with major problems made worse still by climate change, natural disasters, food security and environmental degradation.

“The crux of it is that 180,000 people are added to the urban population in this region daily,” said Teo Chee-hai, President of FIG. “How can we address this? Land as part of the New Urban Agenda must be an agenda for action.

“I have found that one of the starting points here, in our profession, is that we have to involve young people. We have many young professionals going out there and working among these people and they come back with excellent solutions and ideas.”

Asia and the Pacific is home to 20 of the world's 35 megacities, including Jakarta
Asia and the Pacific is home to 20 of the world’s 35 megacities, including Jakarta

Key problems related to land that were outlined included changing rural populations in a region where farming is dominated by smallholders; women’s access to land, which varies under state laws and customary arrangements, and in many countries women’s ability to inherit land is restricted. Another is rapid urbanisation and land grabbing by poor people, who live with the constant threat of forced evictions.

Other problems include the impacts of climate change and natural disasters, and barriers to land administration and management.

“One problem we face is how you get data and information to deal with this,” said Indu Weerasoori, a Sri Lankan land expert. “We find that the best way is to go out there and talk to the community. They know. Then the land professionals working with them can communicate with the authorities and the government. We have to remember land is about people, their rights, their needs.”

Bernadia Tjandradewi, Secretary-General of UCLG-ASPAC agreed, and added: “Land is about justice, good governance. As we pursue economic growth so hard, we forget a lot of these problems. Land is a big issue for local government. In cities we see land prices shooting up; in many countries land is sold to foreigners; often there are no proper land records.”

One of the key ways forward, several speakers said, was to improve the access of women’s right to land through a human rights based approach, with development linked to the legitimate land rights of the landless. The rights of indigenous people, internally displaced people, informal settlers, had to be respected, while government and cities had to ensure that foreign investments and land development did not encroach on their rights.

Brenda Perez of Habitat for Humanity, said: “Governance here is about the relationship between the government and the community who live on the land, about understanding the rights of the people to the land. We have to bear in mind the public at large.”

Perez and UN-Habitat officials explained that achieving low-cost, pro-poor and gender responsive land administration at scale in the region required that legal frameworks are consistent with international obligations, and this requires states to recognise, record and respect all legitimate land rights. Land sector services had to be more sustainable and land agencies across the region had to be strengthened.

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