By Caroline Kolin’s, World Vision’s HungerFree Team
We have an image that will change the way you look at football fields (or soccer for you Americans!) Have you heard of smallholder farmers? Well they are farmers who cultivate a very small area of land ranging from 1 to 10 hectares, or manage a small herd of 10 or less livestock. These farmers provide 80% of the food supply in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa from plots no larger than a football field. The ultimate goal of these farmers is to use food harvested on these field-sized plots keep smallholder farmers and their families fed all year long, but unfortunately that does not always happen.
What does this have to do with poverty? Hold on! We’re getting there. Eighty percent of farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa is managed by smallholder farmers that rely on their families for labor. According to International Food Policy Research Institute, these farms are home to the majority of people living in extreme poverty, and half of the world’s undernourished people. In fact, more than 70% of the world’s rural poor, those who live on less than $1.90 (USD) per day, rely on agriculture for their food and livelihood. However, many of these poor farmers are unable to grow enough food to feed their own families, much less sell it for additional income.
Some of you might think the size of a football field sounds like a large area to farm, but let’s break this down further. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average size of an American farm is 434 acres. That is 175 hectares, so 175 times larger than a smallholder farmer’s 1 hectare plot! That soccer field is starting to seem pretty small, huh? These plots are often so small because they have been divided equally among children as inheritance for many generations. With each generation dividing the land among their children, the plots get smaller and smaller over time.
One of the biggest challenges for these farmers and their families is land tenure rights. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, defines land tenure as, “the relationship, whether legally or customarily defined, among people, as individuals or groups, with respect to land.” So essentially, families and neighbors all come together and, based on their history with plots of land or farms, decide how land with be distributed and divided. But it’s not always that simple since legally, they don’t technically own the land.
Land tenure rights are upheld by government organizations or customary rules that decide who can use, own or inherit land. In many developing countries, farmers rent land from the government, and private ownership of land is not allowed. Without ownership rights, farmers can easily be taken advantage of by others who want to use the land, which could be private sector enterprises, neighbors or the government. Without a legal right to the land there is nothing the farmer can do if their land is unfairly taken away.
Typically there are two types of land tenure systems: customary and government legal systems. The customary systems are run by local leaders who establish and rule over who owns what. These are often not recognized by the state. The government run legal systems are established by governments and allow smallholder farmers to use or rent land from the government. These records are usually kept in a national database.
Discrimination against women is common in both systems, but particularly in the customary system. Customs often say that only men or male children can have claim to or inherit land. For instance, women own only 1% of land in Sub-saharan Africa. Helping rural women gain access to land tenure rights is an important way to spur agricultural and economic development. Especially because studies show that women use their resources to invest in their family overall, not themselves as individuals.
Fair and equal land tenure rights for smallholder farmers is an important ingredient toward achieving a hungerfree world. That’s why we are dedicated to advocating for the world’s poorest farmers who don’t have a voice. World Vision also equip farming families with the tools, skills and resources to both address immediate food needs and generate sustainable income for the future.
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