Guest commentary by Christopher Seeley, Chief of Party of the USAID Honduras ProParque project.

One of the most vexing challenges in biodiversity conservation in developing countries is reconciling land tenure and land use issues that emerge when previously unprotected or unregulated ecosystems are placed under state control as part of a national protected areas system.

Communities and resources that were once unencumbered by land use policies and regulations—for better or worse—are placed under a new paradigm with the stroke of a pen. New national protected area boundaries are often created with altruistic conservation objectives, but with little local stakeholder input. These boundaries define, and in many cases, constrain local household livelihood options, place restrictions on the ability of existing communities to access traditionally available and locally controlled natural resources, and legally exclude communities from social and economic development opportunities that communities outside of these “special areas” have a right to pursue.

USAID’s ProParque project in Honduras takes a different approach; it has developed a collaborative method to define boundary limits and legalize the community’s use of park land. The above video describes the project’s participatory approach and key activities, which includes:

  1. identifying weaknesses in protected area boundary delineation criteria;
  2. replacing inadequate criteria with groupings that more holistically optimized social, cultural, economic and biodiversity/natural resource management conservation parameters;
  3. forming inclusive working groups comprised of community participants, protected area managers, municipal leaders and government representatives, to analyze the land tenure and land use implications of the new boundary delineation criteria;
  4. defining community and protected area boundaries with cadastral and legal precision using the agreed upon criteria; and
  5. providing legal protection and transparency for all parties through land and usufruct titling.

The Census, Mapping and Land Regularization approach (“Censo, Medición y Regularización de Tierras” in Spanish) developed under ProParque was first piloted in Western Honduras, in the Celaque National Park. Created in 1987, during a “boom” of national park decrees, the core zone of the park (a cloud forest containing the headwaters of nine rivers) was created in the home territories of numerous indigenous Lenca communities. These communities faced a near total prohibition on resource utilization and were denied access to most government-sponsored social and economic development initiatives. The park was an ideal pilot site for the new approach given the magnitude of the affected population (several hundred households), the sensitivity of their location (deep within the core protected area), and the willingness of both the communities and local leaders to resolve the long-standing conundrum.

The pilot was completed in two phases over eighteen months, financed by the ProParque Small Grants Fund and implemented by the park’s co-management organization MAPANCE. The first phase consisted of community engagement and the creation of a comprehensive census that provided an in-depth portrait of each community’s livelihood assets and on-the-ground reality, and cadastral work at a level of detail adequate for land and usufruct title purposes. The second phase began with a secondary round of community and governmental dialogue to resolve any differences of opinion or position regarding the results of the census and land mapping work.

There have been two important results to date. First, the Government of Honduras has adopted the approach as the standard for resolving land use conflicts and boundary delineation within the national protected areas system. As part of a wider strategy for the rationalization of Honduras’ overly complex protected areas system of categorization, the approach is now being applied to five additional parks.

Second, significant impacts at the initial pilot site in Celaque National Park have been observed. Four hundred and fifty-three families in eight communities have been granted legal title to their lands and usufruct rights to related resources, the core protected area of the park has been redefined using priority conservation target criteria, and the adoption of collaboratively defined zoning for the park is paving the way for a wide variety of initiatives—including carbon- and water-based payment for environmental services agreements, public-private ecotourism partnerships, and the expanded adoption of environmentally friendly coffee certifications by smallholders.

The “Censo, Medición y Regularización de Tierras” approach adopted by ProParque addresses the natural conflict that exists between allowing communities to access natural resources and protecting biodiversity. As a result, the project aligns with USAID’s development objectives related to biodiversity and global climate change. This participatory effort, which engages with communities from the outset and actively seeks mutually beneficial solutions, provides a strong model for future programming in these important sectors.

Read more about USAID's ProParque project.


In Kenya’s Ol Pusimoru community, twenty-two women were elected as community elders in 2013, up from 14 in 2012, and zero three years ago.

In Kenya’s traditional, patriarchal Maasai society, women are gaining a new voice and increasingly, seeing their rights to land being recognized and upheld. Twenty-two women were elected as community elders in 2013, up from 14 in 2012, and zero three years ago. This transformation was made possible thanks to a USAID-supported pilot project, Enhancing Customary Justice Systems in the Mau Forest, also known as the Kenya Justice Project (KJP). KJP started during a unique window of opportunity that opened following violent post-election conflict in 2007/8. The violence led to the adoption of a new progressive constitution in 2010. This new constitution enshrines women’s equal rights to property and formalizes the role of traditional leaders as local dispute resolvers.

KJP focused on educating key stakeholder groups through legal literacy and skills trainings, peer sessions, community conversations, and public information activities to increase legal knowledge around constitutional rights and traditional leaders’ responsibilities related to land. The project also demonstrated to Kenyan and U.S. government officials that land is the number one issue of concern for rural communities. While the pilot was designed specifically for the Mau Forest, it could be adapted in other regions. To help replicate the success of the KJP model across Kenya, additional funding was allocated in 2014 for a second phase of KJP to produce a new draft implementation guide to make the model replicable.

The implementation guide outlines KJP’s underlying principles, and the steps, resources and time needed to prepare for and launch similar efforts in new communities. Although the pilot had little funding across phases—only $490,000 to date—it secured buy-in from key players in the Kenyan government, including the Deputy Chief Justice. Importantly, it implemented education and behavior change activities at a comfortable pace using trainers who were respected members of the local community. Awareness raising activities continue to be targeted toward the government and NGOs in order to promote the project and encourage a gender-sensitive approach to the integration of the formal and informal justice systems.

Education and high-level buy-in were the keys to the success of this unique pilot project. Within the community, education was targeted at all levels and groups—from traditional elders and chiefs, to youth and children, and women. Each group learned about and discussed their rights under the constitution. Traditional leaders came to see the important role they play under this new constitution: they are responsible for upholding women’s rights to land. At the same time, they came to see the important role that women play in the community and the benefits that all families could experience by securing women’s rights to land. With this different perspective, traditional leaders invited women to become elders and sit with them to decide local cases. Women and men became confident that they could claim their rights through a more impartial legal process instead of using violence or extra-judicial means. USAID’s Senior Rule of Law Advisor, Ms. Achieng Akumu observed, “People are hungry for this – they have seen the improvement in their lives and are ready for it with the constitution’s devolution of rights.”

According to KJP’s implementing partner, Landesa, “With broader implementation, the transformation that has taken place in the pilot community of Ol Pusimoru can take hold across Kenya, enhancing women’s rights and economic opportunities for all.” With additional funding for training-the-trainer activities and field tests of the model in additional rural communities, the KJP pilot can be sustainably handed off for host-country ownership and scaled across Kenya.

Read more about the Kenya Justice Project.


This week in Jakarta, Indonesia, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO) will hold a conference on the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System 10 years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami: Achievements, Challenges, Remaining Gaps and Policy Perspectives. This gathering provides an opportunity to discuss the policy and programming challenges related to disaster risk reduction. Weak land governance and insecure land tenure needs to be a part of this important discussion.

One of the keys to building more resilient communities - both pre-disaster and during post-disaster relief, recovery, and reconstruction - is secure land tenure and property rights. Land tenure considerations are often missing from current humanitarian response efforts, as highlighted in the USAID’s recently published Land Tenure & Disasters issue brief. The brief considers experts’ predictions that climate change will make disasters more frequent and more damaging, and recommends changes for both humanitarian response efforts and mitigation through DRR.
Some of the key recommendations include:

  • Recognize a continuum of land tenure arrangements that exist in practice prior to a disaster;
  • Document, register, survey, and protect land records to strengthen the land rights of vulnerable groups including women, youth, migrants, and the poor. This can be done through community-led enumerations/mapping;
  • Support participatory enumeration exercises to document local land tenure practices that give community members “secure enough” tenure. Involve community groups in decisions about designating areas as unsuitable for habitation;
  • To address land claims, consult with the community, relevant customary authorities, and formal land administration agencies and, as needed, support accessible dispute resolution mechanisms;
  • Be aware of to power relations within communities and between communities and government agencies; and
  • Strengthen the technical and managerial capacity of institutions that govern land use and property rights through disaster risk reduction efforts.

For detailed guidance, the issue brief lists existing manuals that show how to address land tenure and property rights challenges in both disaster risk reduction interventions and in post-disaster relief, recovery, and reconstruction.

Download the Land Tenure & Disasters issue brief.


Guest commentary by Robert Oberndorf, Resource Law Specialist, Tenure and Global Climate Change Project.

Since December of 2013, USAID’s Tenure and Global Climate Change Program has been providing technical assistance to the Government of Burma to develop a draft National Land Use Policy. The policy is intended to address many of the difficulties faced in reforming the governance frameworks related to democratic resource administration and strengthening land tenure security in the country. The policy is also intended to guide the development of a comprehensive umbrella land law for the country, which will help to address some of the challenging legal harmonization issues confronting the country. While improving land use administration and governance in Burma is a complex endeavor, there are promising signs that progress is being made. The development of the draft policy is one such sign.

The Government of Burma has been developing the draft policy using a multi-stakeholder consultation process that began in 2012 with the National Dialogue on Land Tenure and Land Use Rights. The findings from this event fed directly into the draft policy. In addition, advice from non-government technical experts (national and international); extensive research on various land use issues in Burma from academic institutions, donors, INGOs and CSOs; information from media reports; and findings from various Parliamentary commissions on land use issues have fed into the development of the draft National Land Use Policy.

The draft policy, while attempting to balance the interests of multiple stakeholders, emphasizes strengthening the land tenure security of smallholder farmers, ethnic communities, women, and other vulnerable groups in Burma. The policy also includes important provisions on

  • ensuring the use of effective environmental and social safeguard mechanisms,
  • improving public participation in decision-making processes related to land use planning,
  • improving public access to accurate information related to land use management, and
  • developing independent dispute resolution mechanisms.

The draft policy also includes guidance aimed at strengthening the government’s mechanisms for handling land acquisition, compensation, relocation, and restitution.

Considering the fact that Burma has never had a land use policy before, the development of this draft policy is unprecedented on many levels. For example, the Government of Burma has opened the draft policy to a process of public comment and consultation. On October 18, 2014, the Government of Burma held a multi-stakeholder meeting in Yangon to publicly release the draft National Land Use Policy and officially begin a process of nationwide public consultations. The government provided a dedicated e-mail address to send comments. A process for conducting public consultations in every region and state of the country during the month of November was also announced. Once all comments are submitted, they will be assessed for relevance, categorized, and incorporated into the policy through an approach that attempts to balance the views of various stakeholders. A final national workshop will be held to present the revised version of the draft policy prior to final consideration by the Union Government and formal adoption.

To date, reaction to the draft policy has been mixed, with a major concern that the public consultation process does not provide enough time for civil society organizations and the public to fully review and meaningfully comment on the draft. In response to this, the Government initially moved the schedule for the public consultations back one week. It is not clear whether the schedule for consultations might be adjusted further to address the concerns raised by various civil society organizations in the country.

While the public comment and consultation process led by the Government of Burma may be less than perfect, it is nonetheless a watershed moment for Burma that presents a unique opportunity for all stakeholders to make recommendations on an area of policy that directly impacts such a large portion of society in Burma.

Individuals or organizations may submit comments on the draft policy to:

Learn more about land tenure and property rights issues in Burma.


The Global Donor Working Group on Land – a coalition of 23 bilateral and multilateral donors and development agencies committed to improving land governance – welcomes the endorsement of the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems (RAI) by the UN Committee on World Food Security.

USAID, as one of the largest donors in the land and resource governance sector and as the Deputy Chair of the Global Donor Working Group on Land, will work with our partners to support the use of the RAI principles in our efforts to enhance food security and reduce extreme poverty. USAID, along with the U.S. Department of State, Millennium Challenge Corporation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, played an active role in the two-year process of developing and negotiating the RAI because we believe that these principles – and the energy, momentum and partnerships that their endorsement has catalyzed – will make an important contribution to achieving global development goals.

The RAI covers a range of issues – from fostering gender equality to incorporating inclusive and transparent governance structures – that are important to promoting responsible conduct across all types of agricultural investments--public and private, large and small. Crucially, the RAI recognizes the need to respect legitimate tenure rights (Principle 5) as one of the essential ingredients for promoting greater and more sustainable investment in agriculture and food systems.

Read the Global Donor Working Group on Land’s press release welcoming the RAI.

Read more about the RAI from the UN Committee on World Food Security.



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