Land use and access for local populations

Last changed: 25 January 2023

Access to land has proven to be one of the most difficult aspects of development projects: access to land is key for all rural people who make their living through agriculture, animal keeping, hunting/gathering and other natural resource use, such as firewood collection.

Research shows that descriptions of vast tracts of unused land in low/middle income countries are often misleading – most productive land is already in use although some land may be lying in fallow or be used seasonally and therefore appear “empty”. In many areas, there are already conflicting claims to land and borders that might be worsened by a project.

Organising land management through formal land titles and documented borders can however be incompatible with local ways of accessing, using, negotiating and valuing land. Such initiatives can also benefit people with larger influence and power and thus increase existing inequality. These perspectives are important to integrate in order to avoid accelerating conflict and cause negative socio-economic impacts.

Click on the arrow below each question to read about more concrete examples of problems that can happen.

Questions to ask

Does the project’s planned land use take into account existing, local ways of accessing and using land? Local ways of accessing new land or using land have been developed over long time and are rarely linked to its monetary value or documented borders.


For example, local communities often use oral negotiations over land size and agreements between neighbors, rather than official documentation such as land titles. In a context where people may lack the ability to understand formal documents and lack ways of storing documents in a safe way, documented land rights may get sold, lost, stolen, damaged or manipulated and contribute to losing rather than securing long-term land access.


Is there a clear description of the importance of power relations in decisions about who has the right to land, and how to manage these?


For example, people with higher status within the community tend to be on the winning side in a process identifying land borders between and within communities. Is there a plan to avoid such outcomes?


Is it clearly described that the project’s land area is accepted by local communities, including those who do not have formal titles to the land (which is often the majority)?


For example, if the project you are in charge of will work only with those who have land titles it may leave the group without formal titles to land outside the project, and outside of decisions taken about the project although they may still be affected by the project in different ways.


Warning signs

The project proponent claims that land in the project area is unused.


This is a very common view among decision makers and companies, which often has been shown by research to be untrue. Land may be temporarily unused, set aside for future generations by the community, used as grazing or for other purposes, be part of current disputes -  or the qualities of the soil or location may be less favorable than they initially seem to outsiders.


Project expresses that formal property rights (land borders, individual documents such as land titles) are easy and un-problematic to implement, and mentions no risks related to such land formalisation.


For example, it is written or taken for granted that if land is “owned” by someone through a documented land title, there are no risks related to land or conflicts over land.



How the project affects common land areas is not addressed.


Common lands can be a substantial part of a community’s land resources, an important source for grazing and watering cattle and an important asset for landless people. Projects often end up using common lands if people in power who do not use those lands want the project in their area. Also projects that target private plots may still have spill-over effects on common lands. These effects need to be understood and clarified.


If the government provides the project land, and claims that the project will only occupy people’s surplus agricultural land or other “unused” land, without providing evidence that such claims have been thoroughly verified with the communities.


In contexts of high vulnerability, refugees, landless people and other marginalized groups may use land they are not supposed to use – that use may even be locally sanctioned. Their needs should be acknowledged and addressed even if their use is “illegal”.