A Seattle Charity Helps
Poor Families Lay Claim
to the Land They Farm
FOR VERY POOR, RURAL FAMILIES in developing countries, gaining legal rights to the land they farm can be life-changing.
People can invest in the land, secure in the knowledge it won’t be taken away from them. Farmers can
use the land as collateral for loans to buy livestock,
equipment, or supplies to increase their yield. And, in
some countries, land title can provide the vital proof
of residence that people need to apply for government
services, such as public schools or subsidized seeds.
For more than 40 years, Landesa, a Seattle non-profit organization, has sought to combat poverty by
working with governments around the world to help
poor people gain secure land rights.
“As you get title to land, the value of that land goes
up,” says Tim Hanstad, chief executive of Landesa.
“So by providing a title to land, the government is es-
sentially creating capital, and it’s capital that’s sorely
The organization’s research has found that plots of
land as small as a tenth of an acre—roughly the size
of a tennis court—can make a meaningful difference
in a family’s income and the quality of their diet. Mr.
Hanstad says such tiny plots make it more “finan-
cially and politically feasible” for cash-strapped gov-
ernments to overhaul land policies than previous ap-
proaches that sought to take land from the rich and
redistribute it to the poor.
While Landesa works primarily in China, India,
and sub-Saharan Africa, it recently started programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The nonprofit’s
revenue in 2011 totaled $8.2-million, almost three-quarters of which came from foundations.
Landesa, which until 2010 was known as the Rural Development Institute, changed its name to
merge the words land and destiny. It is now looking
to spread the word about the power of land rights
to fight poverty with a campaign aimed at other aid
“As a relatively small organization,” says Mr.
Hanstad, “we can leverage the knowledge and the ex-
pertise that we’ve gained over the decades by trying
to make much larger international-development ac-
tors smarter about land rights.”
Here, a woman in Rwanda shows off the title to her
land. —NICOLE WALLACE
Photograph by Deborah Espinosa