Around the world competitive forces are driving a variety of investors to search for land for agriculture, for mineral exploration, for conservation, for biofuel production, etc. Investment in land is not per se bad. Development can bring important benefits to communities: new knowledge and skills, new connections to markets, in some cases employment, and perhaps other positive spillover benefits related to spending money in the local economy.
In countries with weaker property rights institutions, governments typically contract directly with investors to lease or sell land. This is legal so long as the government is the ultimate title holder to the land. But what is technically legal may lead to harm on the ground for people who lose traditional rights to land. Finding solutions that empower local communities to engage directly and in a meaningful way with investors should lead to more sustainable development outcomes. Here’s an example from Canada of how communities can engage more directly with investors when community-level property rights are secured with a credible government commitment. The government is providing the First Nation Haisla people the right to own land on the British Columbia coast line in an area that may become a shipment location for natural gas. The Haisla may, in turn, lease this land to investors who would build, manage, or otherwise invest in the shipment/transport facilities. Haisla chief councilor Ellis Ross says in this article: “We see land as an essential element in building a strong and sustainable economic future for the Haisla people.” Allowing communities to leverage their traditional land-based assets is an important component of sustainable economic development; one that USAID supports.