Insight with Land Tenure Expert Dr. David Stanfield

By: Morgan Hillenbrand 

In 1963, David Stanfield—then a graduate student living in Washington DC—was threatened with eviction for having an African American friend to his apartment. Finding the owner of the apartment in order to contest the eviction proved to be almost impossible due to a cascade of companies behind the administrator of the building.  For the next 55 years, Stanfield would dedicate his life to exploring the issues of property, power, and rights. Global Land Alliance sat down with Stanfield to hear what he has learned over the course of his career.


David StanfieldThere are estimates that nearly a billion people today lack tenure security. Why should the world care about that?

When you are insecure in your property—whether it’s a piece of land or an apartment—it affects your peace of mind. It affects your ability to plan for the future. Ultimately, it negatively impacts your behavior. If you think you’re going to be evicted, you are not going to be inclined to invest in your property; to take care of it. This has implications for how resources are managed on a piece of land, or how productive a piece of land becomes. So tenure insecurity can have incredibly negative impacts on the way people behave; the way they behave towards their property and the way they behave towards other people.

Looking back on your career, where do you feel advances have been made in the land tenure sector? Where have you seen successes?

What I’ve learned is that things change and evolve over time. In any given country you see advances followed by tragedy followed by more success. There is no country, initiative, or policy that seems to be successful forever, nor one that fails forever.

Take the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin has rules and regulations around land use, including where and how you can build. You cannot build on agricultural land, for example. These regulations have withstood the test of time, and residents are committed to respecting and enforcing these rules. As a result you find housing organized in nooks and crannies where they should be. But we recently heard that several large tech companies are exploring the possibility of relocating to Madison. If tech companies move in, the city of Madison is going to expand. This expanding economy will begin to inflate the price of land on the periphery of town, which will impact citizen and political commitment to continue enforcing building restrictions. Why? All of the sudden there’s big money involved, which—in a capitalist society—changes the game.

Political and economic changes put pressure on people, towns, and cities, and impact the success or failure of any tenure model. It’s the reason people who specialize in land tenure are never without work.

What’s the hardest land tenure challenge you have faced in your career?

Every challenge is the hardest one; every situation is tricky. When you’re dealing with land issues you’re dealing with power relationships. You have to understand the problem from many different perspectives. You have to somehow get yourself into a position where you can ask sensitive questions and investigate delicate topics, and you’re dealing with powerful people. When those people have something to lose, they usually don’t want you investigating the issues.

Early in my career I was in the Dominican Republic conducting what I thought was an innocent agricultural survey. I arrived at the house of a large land owner, who invited me in for coffee. Over the course of the conversation I asked, “How many hectares is in your farm?” He set down his coffee and said “I suggest you leave immediately. You’re no longer welcome in my home.” I later learned that individuals who owned a certain amount of land were subject to expropriation by the state, and he was obviously over that limit. Today, Global Land Alliance is making headway on issues related to uncompensated land expropriations in the Dominican Republic which have lingered for decades.

The bottom line is that when you’re exploring land tenure issues you never know when you’re going to get in trouble.

In your view, what are some of the biggest barriers to making progress on land issues globally and at scale?

In my view, the biggest barrier isn’t necessarily related to policies or implementation models or the need to innovate in any given area. The biggest challenge is more philosophical; it’s a lens issue. And that is for the stakeholders involved to enter the discussion through the lens of the disadvantaged.

Ownership of land and property gives an individual power: economic power, or power over other people. Providing tenure security to the disadvantaged sometimes threatens or counteracts the interests of the rich and powerful. That’s what makes these issues so challenging. Whether we’re talking about women, a particular ethnic group, tenant farmers, or indigenous people, advancing their tenure security requires a lens in which the stakeholders involved care about the rights and well-being of the disadvantaged. In many situations this is hard to achieve.

What are your thoughts on the new indicator “Prindex,” which measures an individual’s perception of tenure security? 

Global Land Alliance recently developed this new indicator, which is groundbreaking. Historically when we wanted to determine whether or not a person was secure in their tenure, we looked to see if that individual had a piece of paper that showed they had rights to land, property, or some other asset. This represents a formal definition of security, demonstrated by possession of a legal document. In reality this doesn’t tell the whole story. The question of tenure security is also a psychological one. Does an individual feel like the possession of their land, home, or property is threatened? Measuring this perception is in many ways a more direct measure of a person’s insecurity.

The question is how to do this over time, because perceptions change depending on what’s happening on the ground. You can go into an informal settlement one year and ask the residents, “Do you have a legal document listing you as the owner of this land?” The residents will say, “Of course not! The government is coming in here with bulldozers threatening to tear the whole thing down. We’re very insecure and we don’t know what will happen.”

When you go back two years later, you see that the government has installed drainage canals and started garbage collection there, which the residents are paying for. Now when you talk to them they say, “We might not have documentary titles but the government is recognizing us by giving us services. They wouldn’t do that if they were going to kick us out. We feel secure now.” So security might come formally in the form of a legal document, or it might come informally, derived from a feeling of safety and stability over time.

What are your thoughts about the impact of technology (GIS, GPS, computer mapping, and land information systems) on land tenure and land administration?

There have been positive advancements but also challenges. Technology requires skills that are not prevalent in local communities. So often the control and management of the technology is out of reach of the local people. When control over the information generated by technology is not with the community, it makes it less likely that they will trust and embrace it—they will continue to construct their own systems for defining rights and rules for access to land.

But there are ways to overcome this. Global Land Alliance is using drones with communities in innovative ways. . In Peru, GLA worked with farmers to mark their property boundaries using lime. These materials were highly visible on the drone images and were used to create sky-view parcel maps. Simon Norfolk is working in Mozambique to build “The People’s Cadaster.” The team is supporting a community by asking them to define boundaries and identify who has rights to what land, which the team then visualizes on a Google Map. So the technology is being brought to the community in a more participatory way. In the past I have opted to print the records so local people have the capacity to administer them, but this has its own set of challenges. Pencil and paper is easy and accessible for the community—it allows them to maintain control over the process and information. But paper can get lost, burned, ripped up, and otherwise destroyed, and it’s harder to update and maintain over time. In this regard using technology to create electronic records is an advantage, but there has to be a way to overcome the distance technology creates between the community and their information. Creating that community ownership is the greatest challenge with technology.

What is the most innovative thing you see happening in the land tenure sector today?

When I see tenure initiatives that are bottom-up—that facilitate true participation and involvement of local communities—that is innovative. For decades we’ve seen governments of weak nation states wanting to lead from the top down on tenure initiatives, and this doesn’t typically end well.

One of the greatest examples of the bottom-up approach I’ve seen is here in the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin needed to modernize the administration of land; update the colonial records and use technologies to make land administration more efficient in the state. The state created a fund and invited local governments to present proposals for how they would like to upgrade the land information system at the county level. Rather than designing and rolling out a statewide program that counties were forced to adopt, they let the local people design and propose a solution, then provided the funding and technical assistance needed to achieve it. It’s a good example of using centralized state resources—money and technical expertise—while facilitating local control over the whole thing.

Many of the leading land tenure specialists came from the University of Wisconsin Land Tenure Center. Where will the new cadre of land specialists come from?

People are inventing new centers dealing with land tenure issues all around the world. It’s healthier and more resilient if there is a global network of people working on these concepts, and it’s important to recognize the work of new people and continue to bring them into the fold. The World Bank Land Tenure Conference remains a critical networking opportunity; as are the networks that organizations like Land Alliance are creating all around the world. When I start working on an issue, I pull up as many articles, papers, and books as I can find. I look at the authors and the institutions they are affiliated with. Then I go to those institutions, find the two or three people working on land issues, and I work with them. I work with the young people. I try to use and feature their findings instead of coming in with my own research, assumptions, and emotions. I find the local network and try to strengthen it if I can, and I respect it. Graduates of the University of Wisconsin’s Land Tenure Center helped evolve this philosophy, and many of these individuals are now both seasoned leaders in the land tenure and land administration field, and among the founders of the Global Land Alliance. As a result you see this philosophy reflected in the organization’s core mission. Global Land Alliance both builds and fosters collaborative networks in the countries where they work.

Ideally we want to move towards a situation where we don’t need centers anymore, and where specialists have worked themselves out of a job, being replaced by people with a range of disciplinary interests, but also with a special place in their minds for land issues. These people need a supportive network that facilitates the exchange of ideas.

What is the next frontier in the land tenure sector? Where should donors be spending their dollars today? 

People who want to engage with tenure issues need a holistic view of the problems and a global starting point. First and foremost, we need to save this planet from burning up. Looking at tenure in relation to the climate crisis is important, and to do that requires a strong understanding of economic systems and the powers involved. Advancing on tenure issues sometimes requires regulation of profit making enterprises, but talking about regulation is a big no-no in our country right now. The US government is more interested in establishing the profit-making capabilities of entrepreneurs than dealing with tenure issues. We’re in a bad moment. Despite this, there are always situations where we can make progress—as organizations like Global Land Alliance is showing. My advice to tenure specialists is: keep at it. There are good people all around, and there is always an opportunity for us to do something positive in benefit of the disadvantaged.

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