USAID invites you to comment on its draft guide, titled Responsible Land-Based Investment: A Practical Guide for the Private Sector. This guide was developed in response to requests from the private sector for guidance on making land-based investments that are more sustainable, responsible and inclusive, and less risky. USAID seeks input from a broad range of stakeholders in order to identify concerns and opportunities to improve the document. We encourage members of civil society, the private sector, governments, academia, and other development partners, to provide feedback and help ensure the guidance is as comprehensible as possible. The deadline for providing comment is Monday, December 1.

Purpose of the Guide

Recognizing and respecting the legitimate land and resource rights of people who may be affected by an investment is central to designing and operating responsible projects.

With the recent endorsement of the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems (RAI) by the UN Committee on World Food Security, attention is now focused on the how to practically address land tenure concerns in the context of agricultural investments in emerging economies. The guide was developed for this purpose, in line with relevant elements of both the RAI and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land Tenure, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT).


As global demand for food, biofuel, forest, and horticultural products rises, companies are investing – and will continue to invest – in countries where land appears abundant and inexpensive. With the promise of agricultural investment in developing countries come several risks for both local communities and investors; key among these risks is land tenure risk —the risk associated with acquiring rights to land. Many land-based investments take place in environments where land governance is weak and land rights are insecure or undocumented. Unclear, undocumented or contested land rights can lead to dispossession of local people and can create significant investment risks for the private sector. In addition, when a project fails to take adequate account of local land rights, it can face costly delays, work stoppages, protests, and, in some cases, violence. Investors can face legal actions and suffer financial, brand, or reputational harm. USAID’s practical guide does not endorse large-scale land acquisitions, but rather recognizes that large acquisitions do occur, and when they do, they can and should be conducted in a responsible and inclusive manner that does no harm to local communities. This document is intended to give specific, practical guidance to help companies address land tenure risks in their investments. It is hoped that the guide will also be of use to companies that source products from suppliers that may have land-based investments.


Tim Fella, Senior Land Tenure and Conflict Advisor for USAID’s Land Tenure and Resource Management Office wrote an article that was featured in Devex's Newswire newsletter last week. An excerpt appears below.

As the International Year of Family Farming winds down, a new set of United Nations principles recognizes that in order to promote global food security, we need to acknowledge and promote family farmers as key investors in agriculture and food systems.

The U.N. Committee on World Food Security is meeting in Rome this week to endorse the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems that pave the way for much-needed agricultural investments that will help feed the world’s expanding population, projected to be approximately 9 billion by 2050. The principles, together with the internationally recognized guidelines for land tenure, paint a picture of how we, as development practitioners, can encourage governments, civil society and the private sector — including family farmers — to collaborate to overcome persistent barriers to food security and poverty alleviation.

Family farmers are often underserved investors. Just like other commercial entities, they need the right policies, laws and processes in place to encourage and expand their investments in food production. Importantly, the new set of principles addresses this need by encouraging governments to create an enabling environment that fosters responsible investment and protects the legitimate land rights of one of the most vulnerable groups of family farmers: smallholder farmers.

Read the full article at


This past Wednesday, the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS) endorsed the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems (commonly referred to as the RAI). The RAI provides much-needed principles to guide national regulations, global corporate social responsibility initiatives, and individual contracts around investment in agriculture.

The RAI was developed over two years through the CFS, an inclusive international and intergovernmental platform through which government, civil society and private sector stakeholders coordinate to improve food security and nutrition. The U.S. Government played a significant role in the RAI negotiations through a broad, inter-agency group involving USAID, the U.S. Department of State, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Read more here.


On September 23, at the United Nations Climate Summit, leaders representing governments, the private sector, and civil society announced that they would join the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) – a voluntary, farmer-led, multi-stakeholder, action-oriented coalition committed to the incorporation of climate-smart approaches within food and agriculture systems. Signatories to the Climate Summit Action Statement on Agriculture pledge to increase agricultural productivity, enhance the resilience of 500 million people in agriculture by 2030, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While acting on that commitment, they should be mindful of the enabling environment that influences the decisions of smallholder farmers.

Research has repeatedly shown that smallholder farmers adopt more sustainable practices when they have secure access to land and resources, and the right to manage and benefit from them. Securing land tenure and resource rights can help strengthen weak enabling environments that, left unchecked, may hamper efforts to promote the adoption of CSA practices. It may also be necessary to support efforts or programming that amends the legal and regulatory environment, such as revising forest codes and rural codes for pastoralists; recognizing individual and customary land rights; revisiting lease laws for agricultural lands; and identifying ways to coordinate land use and land management plans across ministries.

Smallholder farmers are more likely to adopt CSA practices, make necessary investments, and sustainably manage their land resources over the long-term when they have incentives to do so. Strengthened rights and access to land and resources create forward-looking incentives because they provide a sense of permanence, stability, and predictability that allows farmers to make long-term planning and management decisions that are often required to reap the full stream of benefits associated with CSA.

While some CSA practices can be adopted quickly and easily, the following practices are more likely to be widely adopted where land tenure is secure and resource rights are well defined:

  • Agro-forestry: intercropping to improve soil structure, organic carbon content, infiltration, and fertility; establishing shelterbelts to reduce erosion
  • Improved agronomic practices: continuous cropping, use of cover crops, crop rotations
  • Tillage and residue management: soil conservation
  • Improved water management: terracing, water harvesting, bunds/ridges
  • Improved livestock management: managed access to grazing lands, pasture regeneration, managing water use, improving rangeland management

USAID is promoting the adoption of CSA practices to sustainably address broader food security and climate change goals. For further discussion of how secure land tenure and property rights provide the right incentives to adopt CSA practices, USAID’s Land Tenure and Property Rights Division will release an issue brief on the subject by the end of 2014. 

Until then, read USAID's Climate Change, Property Rights, and Resource Governance issue brief.


Guest commentary by Matt Sommerville, Chief of Party for USAID Tenure and Global Climate Change (TGCC) project.

Tenure and New York Declaration on Forests

This week Heads of State converged on New York City at the request of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to demonstrate political commitment for completing negotiations on a climate change treaty by the end of 2015, and to announce voluntary actions on a diversity of topics, including forest management. At the meeting, over 125 developed and developing country governments, companies, indigenous peoples groups and civil society organizations signed on to the New York Declaration on Forests, which laid out high-level goals to address deforestation and promote restoration, alongside an action agenda with specific voluntary actions. Many of these forest-related actions will highlight the importance of engaging local communities more effectively in resource management. Indeed, one of the ten commitments of the Declaration is to: “Strengthen forest governance, transparency and the rule of law, while also empowering communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, especially those pertaining to their lands and resources.”

The subsequent action agenda notes that: “There is growing evidence that areas where communities have clear and enforced rights over forests have reduced deforestation. In Nepal, deforestation has been virtually eliminated in areas under community management.”

It stresses that “Governments can:

  • Promote and support participation and respect the rights of indigenous peoples, including to their lands, territories and resources, consistent with applicable law.
  • Clarify rights in land tenure systems to improve land security, strengthen community management of natural resources and resolve overlapping forest clearing concessions.”

And that “Indigenous peoples can:

  • Exercise and promote their rights to traditional lands and other natural resources in ways that protect and conserve forests, especially when such rights are secured, consistent with applicable law.”

Within this context, new synthesis research supported by USAID explores the “growing evidence” highlighted in the Declaration on the extent to which devolving forest rights from central authorities to local levels results in improved forest condition. This USAID-funded work includes both a brief and a full literature review. It is important to note that the USAID review considers a range of devolution to local levels, while the Declaration largely refers to indigenous peoples lands, but does not explore the challenging issues around defining “local communities,” which may or may not include indigenous peoples.

Why Consider Forests, Climate Change and Devolution of Rights to Local Levels?

The loss of forest ecosystems globally represents a significant source of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. As a result, the protection and restoration of forests (through a mechanism known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD+) is one of the most important opportunities for combating climate change by providing incentives to developing countries to reduce emissions from the forest sector. The importance of involving local communities in national REDD+ efforts is commonly recognized in global agreements and project-level guidance. This focus on enhancing engagement of local communities in forest management also overlaps with a global movement to decentralize land and resource rights and protect the rights of local communities in the face of land acquisitions and other land-related pressures in many developing countries. As governments, investors, and project proponents design programs at the local level to reduce deforestation, it is important to critically examine how this relates to achieving climate objectives. Recent publications have described how strengthening community forest rights leads to climate change mitigation (WRI, 2014), and there is a broad set of case studies that examine the successes and failures of local resource management.

Research Findings

The USAID-funded research (released 22 September 2014) calls for a nuanced understanding of the potential causal relationship between devolved resource rights and positive forest outcomes. The review finds some evidence of a positive relationship between devolution of rights and forest condition, but it argues that this does not imply conclusive evidence of a causal link, as there are a range of conditions, including around local capacity, financial incentives, and monitoring and enforcement, that affect whether devolution of rights leads to improved forests. Authors Runsheng Yin, Leo Zulu, and their team from Michigan State University (MSU) find that the full bundle of ownership and management rights are rarely devolved to the local level. As a result, communities are often limited in their rights to extract timber or engage in a range of active forest management activities. In some cases, communities are given management rights, but do not have technical support, for example on low-impact harvesting or in negotiating fair agreements with outside actors. Often, local communities are given responsibilities, for example in monitoring and enforcement, without adequate support, which may undermine communities' ability to carry out these responsibilities effectively.

The authors also find that the concept of community is overly simplified in existing reviews, with a general failure to explore the range of locally-managed rights regimes. For example, individualized private ownership of forests, local municipality-managed forests, and co-management regimes between a community group and government each represent very different governance regimes with different levels of engagement and different conditions for success. The USAID work calls on researchers and practitioners to explicitly consider the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to strengthen the rights of local actors in research and project design.

The authors also describe analytical weaknesses in the existing literature. While there are many relevant studies, few have been designed specifically to test the relationship between devolution of rights and the resulting forest condition outcomes. The most common design weakness is an unbalanced focus on either physical science or social science elements. Across the literature, many studies demonstrate a strong understanding of community governance institutions but rely on reported change in forest condition. On the other hand, biophysical studies that track forest degradation and growth, even those done through remote imagery, rarely include rigorous indicators related to local resource governance. Future site-specific research should focus on integrating these social and biophysical science elements and utilize uniform indicators.

Local communities must be a part of natural resource management policy and certainly part of any successful REDD+ program. However, the application of these policies and programs will result in a change in access, use, and management of forests from national to local levels. Not all communities will benefit equally, and some members will find their access reduced. Centralized government management of forests that does not engage with or recognize the rights of local populations has not been a successful forest management approach in most countries. Yet, while a response that places increased rights in the hands of local populations is welcomed, it must be accompanied by specific efforts to ensure that the associated conditions around local capacity strengthening, and links to broader monitoring and enforcement assistance are present. These outcomes should inform the activities that emerge from the New York Declaration on Forests and future REDD+ and land tenure programming and financing.

This work was produced under the Tenure and Global Climate Change project, a global USAID project (2013 - 2018) that focuses on targeted research and pilot activities to explore the relationship between strengthening land and resource tenure and the success of climate change mitigation and adaptation activities.



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