In response to the insufficiency and inappropriateness of conventional approaches in recent years, land administration to ensure land tenure security and equitable land access has received renewed attention from researchers and practitioners. These approaches with a focus on secured individual and even communal land rights do not always render more inclusive solutions underpinned by the complex social, economic, cultural and political relations between state and non-state actors especially for the poor in developing countries and countries in transition. Facing the challenges of urbanization, poor people and disadvantaged groups are embroiled in the struggle to gain discretionary power over policy-making and implementation affecting their livelihoods which are undermined or threatened by land expropriation and unsustainable utilization of resources such as forests and water. Land tenure, administration and development linkages are far from being properly understood by different stakeholders. How to develop more appropriate land tenure systems and relevant institutions for the poor remains a critical challenge for land law and policy improvements in tackling the negative impacts of the global development process whereby natural resource use and rural-urban development have not favoured the poor and disadvantaged groups.

Land tenure security and land access for the poor and the disadvantaged, especially women and indigenous peoples, are widely emphasized in research and development programmes. Yet, there is a lack of synergy among the current initiatives, and the question of how to balance the divergent and conflicting interests among different stakeholders remains insufficiently addressed. Land tenure is not only about who owns and uses what; it is more about who decides on what, how and when. Moreover, it is not the only parameter for development. A certain type of land tenure hinges upon many other embedded factors. Dynamics and conditions of land tenure systems need to be well understood in order to formulate more appropriate alternatives in the interests of the poor and the wider public.

Even in the so-called ‘developed’ countries, land tenure and administration practices are constantly subjected to adjustment. In Europe, for example, highly efficient land registration systems are facilitated through the exchange of information within a federal country as well as between countries. New technical developments improve data processing and facilitate the accessibility of vast quantities of land-related data to ensure their quality (three- and four dimensional cadastre) and to speed up the process of registration at low costs. Questions regarding the unification of land administration systems as well as whether these new techniques should be introduced to developing countries are constantly being raised.

Four generic research questions on sustainable land tenure and land administration need to be answered:

1. What constitutes the ‘role of law’ and ‘rule of law’ in sustainable land administration given the legal failure in strengthening land tenure and balancing conflicting interests revolving around land?

2. How do we balance the public interests in land (expropriation, spatial planning, etc.) with private interests in land? What is the nature of those public interests and what are the threats to the security of land rights and customary land rights? What are the tools and mechanisms to regulate public interests in privately owned land and how effective are they?

3. Why have land tenure reform programmes not been adequately socially and politically responsive and receptive to the poor? Are legal tenure administration norms compatible with locally-based land tenure systems?

4. How to synergize country experiences and develop more viable pro-poor land governance frameworks to tackle the institutional constraints on sustainable land administration, natural resource use and rural-urban development?

To address these questions, a comprehensive approach toward understanding the linkages between land tenure, development, natural resource use and sustainable land administration is needed through more systematic and praxis-oriented research collaboration among interested parties. The formation of an international network will enable these actors to place themselves in a better position to synchronize and publish relevant information and improve its accessibility to the wider community. Such enhanced interaction will lead to innovative cross-country comparative analysis of theories and practices and cross-fertilization of country experiences concerning land tenure and administration. This network will also contribute to the harmonization of local, national and international agendas on land reform.

Against this backdrop, a group of international land researchers formed the International Alliance on Land Tenure and Administration (IALTA) in 2008. IALTA is one of the few international initiatives that brings people of different backgrounds together to undertake the study of the land reform challenges. Hosted by the Notary Institute and the Groningen Centre for Law and Governance of the Faculty of Law at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, IALTA is making considerable headway in implementing its mission to work closely with its partners and international land experts from academic and research institutions, international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments and international businesses.

Author: Leon Verstappen