The following is a conversation between Chris Jochnick, President and CEO of Landesa and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Denver: The non-governmental organization Advisor, commonly known as the NGO Advisor annually ranks the top 500 NGOs and nonprofit organizations in the world. And for the second year in a row, Landesa has been in the top 10 of that list. Just one of their many, many honors which include the Hilton Humanitarian Award. So, I’m pretty excited to have with us this evening, the President and CEO of Landesa, Chris Jochnick.

Good evening, Chris, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Chris: Good Evening.Thanks for having me on.

Denver: So give us a snapshot of Landesa, who you are, and what you do.

We believe that land rights are core to a person’s ability to lift themselves out of poverty and to undertake all sorts of development activities.

Chris: Landesa is a fairly unique organization. We work on issues of poverty and social justice, but our angle is land rights. We believe that land rights are core to a person’s ability to lift themselves out of poverty and to undertake all sorts of development activities. We’ve been doing that now for about 50 years in over 50 countries, and I’ve learned quite a bit about it and I’m excited to talk about it.

Denver: How many people have you helped?

Chris: We conservatively can say that we’ve strengthened land rights for 120 million families, which is more than 400 million people over the course of 50 years.

Denver: Very impressive. You can tell a lot about an organization from its founding story. Share with us the founding story of Landesa.

Chris: Thanks. Roy Prosterman is our founder. He was a law professor back in the early ‘70s and discovered a Law Review article that intrigued him about land rights and property rights and wrote an article about how he believed land rights were central to development objectives, especially with respect to smallholder farmers. That article was picked up by the US government, which was in the midst of the Vietnam War, and they asked Roy to go over and work with the South Vietnamese government to test his theory with the idea that if land rights could actually help smallholder farmers in South Vietnam, that would make them less inclined to join the Vietcong and could improve their livelihoods as well. So Roy worked with the government.  After three years of doing that, they discovered that recruitment had dropped by 80%, and productivity had gone up by 30%, and Landesa was off to the races.

… if you’re not secure about your land, then your time horizon is very short. You’re not going to invest for the long term. You’re not going to build the irrigation. You’re not going to take out loans. You’re not going to fertilize your soil. Because doing any of those things puts your land to risk to being seized by a more powerful neighbor or to losing it.

Denver: Very interesting story. So, Chris, if a person as working and farming the land, but they don’t have title to it, what are some of the negative repercussions of that?

Chris:  This is hard to understand for many people. But let me just step back a little bit. First of all, there’s three basic things we know about people. The majority of people who live in poverty:  they are rural, they depend on land to survive, and they don’t have secured title. Most smaller farmers don’t have secured title which may surprise people. And what that means is, if you’re not secure about your land, then your time horizon is very short. You’re not going to invest for the long term. You’re not going to build irrigation. You’re not going to take out loans. You’re not going to fertilize your soil. Because doing any of those things puts your land at risk to being seized by a more powerful neighbor or to losing it. So, people… they have a perverse disincentive not to invest in their land… or in the case of communities… in their forests because they have to be constantly thinking about the possibility that they’re going to lose it.

Denver: You said it’s sort of like getting an oil change for a rent-a-car.

Chris: Exactly. That’s right. You don’t wash a rental car. You don’t invest in land if you don’t feel like you have secure title to it. That’s part of the dysfunction, but that then leads to all sorts of other problems. If you’re not investing in your land, then your income is hurt. Your family’s food security is hurt, and all sorts of other things ripple out from that. The other big problem with it is, if you don’t have secured title, you don’t have an address. You’re not on the map. You lack government services. You lack access to financial markets. You’re not part of a formal economy. You’re destined to live on the margins. So that also has these bigger macroeconomic impacts for people. There’s a host of other issues that ripple out from that, but that’s the nub of it.

Denver: You’re invisible, I guess is what it gets down to.

Chris: You’re invisible.

Denver: So how does Landesa go about its work in trying to secure land rights for these individuals? What are the levers that you need to pull in a given nation to get this done?

Chris: We’ve been working now in over 50 countries over the course of 50 years, so we have a sense. But each country is a little different, so we always start with research. We try to get a solid assessment of what is the situation. How many people do lack land? How significant of a problem is it?  And then also, is there political will to address it?  We don’t fight against the current. There are enough governments out there that really do want to do the right thing. We target those governments that are ready to make significant reforms and where many people will be affected. So that means countries like India, China, more recently, Myanmar; many countries in Africa.

And so after doing the research, we then go present it to government champions. We build relationships with local organizations, and we first try to have an influence on legal reforms to ensure that the law supports smallholder tenants and women, in particular. And then, we also work on programs like taking unused land and distributing it in small, what we call micro-plots– about the size of a tennis court– to landless families, and that’s enough to at least get them on the map and get them started. So, we then start working on specific interventions. But it starts in research and legal reform and then various types of implementation interventions.

Denver: Who, by the way, owns this land in most cases… that the farmers may be working on, these poor people? Does anybody have title to the land?

Chris: Under many countries, as a vestige of the colonial regimes, it’s all held by the state, and so until the state formally distributes it, the state has the title. But that doesn’t really account for all of the people that have been living there for many generations and don’t even realize that the state actually owns the title until some company comes along and kicks them off because their local government sold the land to somebody. So, that’s the big problem. Countries have not gotten around to titling land, to registering it, to giving people the documents that they need.

Chris Jochnick at the AM970 The Answer Studio

In many countries, by law, women cannot own land, inherit land, transfer land, mortgage land. That’s just a part of the formal legal system that’s discriminatory.

So, women are really the guardians in many ways of the family. And if you deprive women of those rights, the family suffers. By the same token, if you improve the status and the income of women, the family benefits.

Denver: You mentioned a moment ago… women.  And boy, women do face multiple barriers in accessing and benefiting from land rights, and I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise to any of our listeners.  But describe for us the kind of impediments that they encounter, and where they may be most severe.

Chris:  There are two levels of challenges. There’s the formal legal system. In many countries, by law, women cannot own land, inherit land, transfer land, mortgage land. That’s just a part of the formal legal system that’s discriminatory. Many countries now have changed those laws, and so we’re seeing some progress on that front. But then you have a whole other set of much more pervasive issues, which is: most developing countries still manage their land to what is known as customary laws. You have a traditional authority that has been there and that authority– or that community leader– has the ability to make decisions around land.

So, even if you have formal legal rights for women, the women will be discriminated against typically under these customary systems. Even beyond that, even where women actually have all the rights that they have, they don’t, in many cases, understand those rights, and those rights are non-enforceable in any way. So that even despite having the rights, women are still treated as second-class citizens and pushed off land and can’t inherit it. This is a huge problem for many women where they can use the land often, but the proceeds of any sales of crops or livestock or whatever is managed by the husband. And if the husband dies, the land is then taken away from the woman and passed on to a brother or a relative. So, there are multiple ways that women are discriminated, and this really locks in women’s second-class status.

For anybody that is concerned about women’s empowerment, and we know that the development community has identified women’s empowerment as one of the critical levers for addressing all sorts of development issues, land has to be top of the agenda. And one other reason for this is, we know that when men manage money, they tend to spend it on things like alcohol, in some cases, prostitution, tobacco. Women traditionally and typically will spend it on the family; on education, on nutrition, on health. I’m making broad generalities, of course, but this is what we often find across countries. So, we know that when women manage resources, when women are given equal rights, the family benefits as a whole; and that’s been proven over and over. The kids stay in school. The health of the family improves. The nutrition improves. So, women are really the guardians in many ways of the family. And if you deprive women of those rights, the family suffers. By the same token, if you improve the status and the income of women, the family benefits.

Finally, I’ll say one other thing on this point because it’s an important one. The most critical issue with women and land is political status, identity, dignity. When I go around and talk to women, that‘s the thing they talk about most. They are second class, meaning they don’t have a voice in their community because they don’t own land. They don’t have an equal voice with their finances because their husband treats them as unequal. So, to get at that critical, political question of:  how do we empower women… The easiest, quickest way is to get their name on a land title, and that’s often not nearly as big a challenge as people think.

Denver: It doesn’t have to be a lot of land. One-tenth of an acre can really make a difference.

Chris: Absolutely, because it’s the status at that level. They become a landowner. Whether you’re a huge landowner or small landowner, you are a different class of person in many countries as a landowner.

Denver: You know, you mentioned a moment ago that when somebody does have title for the land that they’re going to invest in it, and they’ll be more productive.  Is there any evidence that indicates that?

Chris:  Absolutely. In country after country; this has been studied by the World Bank, by academics, by Landesa and others. Productivity will rise anywhere from 30% to 60% when farmers feel more secure about their land and start investing in their land. So, for example, many organizations work on Ag extension. They want farmers to adopt new seeds. They want them to put in irrigation. They want them to fertilize their land. They want to let the land go fallow. All of those interventions require that a farmer trusts that those benefits might accrue to him in two years or four years or ten years, or in the case of long-term trees– 30 years… that those benefits will, in fact, accrue to that farmer. And if they don’t feel secure about that, then they’re not going to waste their money on it, knowing that it’s quite likely that if they improve the land, they can be pushed off it. So, it has been proven, but it’s logical that you invest in those things that you feel secure about.

Denver: You know, I’ve been curious. Chris. Is there a connection between land rights and climate change, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation?

Chris:  Absolutely. Take forests. Forests are the lungs of the earth. They’re pulling all the CO2 down. We now know that where communities have secure land title, they protect those forests. And again that stands to reason. If you feel secure that you’re going benefit from a particular forest, you’re not going to destroy it. You’re going to keep it. You are going to protect it, and you’re going to protect it from outside threats as well.

One of the greatest interventions that we can make for climate change is securing land rights for communities as stewards for the forest. We also know that there are certain ways of practicing agriculture, climate-smart agriculture techniques, that are being promoted. And again, this goes back to the question of: Will a farmer adopt techniques if they don’t feel secure? And we know that they won’t. So, in order to promote climate-smart agriculture, we also need farmers to have secure land rights. So, both in the case of individual farmers and communities, land rights are a critical intervention for mitigation effects of climate change.

But then there’s also the whole question of adaptation. How do we make communities more resilient? How do we make families more resilient? How do we make women more resilient so that they can actually withstand the impacts of climate change?Again, we know that adaptation relies on people having secure land rights.

Take an example of where the climate is changing, and you expect more natural disasters. One of the things that we know is that communities without secure land rights will often stay on their land…. even in the face of hurricanes or flooding… because the only proof they have that that’s their land is their physical presence on it. So, many more people will die and suffer from the effects of increased natural disasters because they don’t have secure rights. And when you go to rebuild after these impacts, again, trying to rebuild in places like Indonesia or Haiti where the land records aren’t good is almost an impossible challenge because you need those solid land records to start rebuilding on that land. You need to know who owns it. You need to work with them. And that again is a major impediment. There are a number other adaptation needs that go back to secure land rights.

Chris Jochnick and Denver Frederick at the AM970 The Answer Studio

Denver: I know you said that once a government is really ready to do something about land rights, you can make some swift and remarkable progress. Can you give us an example of a country where that has been the case?

Chris:  Sure. I mean I always look to land rights as low-hanging fruit really for the development community because of this. Where a government decides to get serious about land rights, it can affect change at massive levels. China, for example. We know that the greatest example of a country pulling the most number of people out of poverty is China. Hundreds and millions have been pulled out of poverty, and much of that can go back to some changes that China made with respect to land, where it gave individuals longer-term leases to land, the right to own a land longer, and that led to those individual farmers investing in that land.

We’ve seen that across India as well, where states have changed the way, for example, land is titled, so that something as simple as in many countries: there’s only one name on the land document, and it’s always the head of the household, which means it’s always the man. Where governments have been willing to put two names on the households… suddenly, the woman’s name is on there, and they become of equal status. Very small change. We’ve seen it affect hundreds of thousands of people with a stroke of a pen across India.

The micro-plot work that we’ve been doing; again, hundreds of thousands of people have received small pieces of land that have absolutely transformed their lives.  And by small, again I go back to about the size of a tennis court, which is not going to make you rich but gives you the foundation. It gives you a house. You’re no longer living on somebody else’s piece of land, which creates a feudal situation. You have an address. You can get access to government services. You can grow a little bit of vegetables to help you get through the tough months. There are all sorts of things that happen once a person owns a tiny piece of land. So, we have seen government programs that scale because there’s a lot of land out there that government has access to that is not well used. Those kinds of interventions across many countries have had dramatic impacts.

Denver: I can just imagine what the psychological impact must be to own something and to live on the land that is yours.

You know, we generally think of land rights in the context of rural communities. Has Landesa paid much attention to the issue of land rights in urban settings?

Chris: Landesa has not spent as much attention on urban. In fact, our original name is the Rural Development Institute. But we are increasingly being pulled into that because of the fact that urbanization is a modern phenomenon, and more people are moving from rural areas to the urban.  And urban areas also suffer from many of the same problems.

So, where Landesa has been active more recently is in where they’re called peri-urban areas — the space between rural and urban — where governments are very quickly– and private actors– developing land as they push the city boundaries out, and the fact that there is not good land planning, the fact that there is not strong oversight of land creates all kinds of dysfunction, infrastructure problems, food security problems.

Cities that are growing rely on areas around them for food security, and if those lands are not well-titled, they’re not getting the kind of investment. People migrate if they don’t feel secure about their land. They will migrate more rapidly to urban areas and create dysfunction. Whereas, if their land has been titled, they can migrate with a small piece of land, and it gives them a foothold as they move. There are all sorts of connections between the rural land issues and the urban land issues that are just now being explored.

I will just mention that UN Habitat has taken on this issue, and there’s now a new urban land agenda that includes both rural and urban land issues. So, we’re seeing what used to be traditionally two separate communities of activists or advocates; those focusing on the urban areas and those focusing on the rural areas starting to come together to think about how those two systems overlap and where we can find synergies and where the land planning has to cover both rural and urban.

Denver: That’s good news.

You know you just mentioned the United Nations, the UN. The United Nations has 17 Sustainable Development Goals with a target date of 2030. Is land rights part of or embedded into any of these goals?

Chris:  Absolutely. Prior to the Sustainable Development Goals, we had the Millennial Development Goals, and the Millennial Development Goals were notable for a number of things, but one of them was a complete absence of any mention of land. The Sustainable Development Goals have changed that significantly. Now, land rights are prominently mentioned; in particular, you find them in the first goal around poverty, the second goal around food security, and the fifth goal, around women’s empowerment. But land rights are also essential to a number of the other goals. So, yes. They are part of it, and it just reflects the fact that land has moved up the international agenda and is now in the minds of many actors– governments, private sector, civil society, and donors alike.

Denver: Three goals, pretty impressive.

Let’s turn to your organization itself. What is your business model?  And what are your streams of revenue that support this vital work?

Chris: Landesa is primarily supported by private foundations… foundations like the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the like; Omidyar Network has been a big one.  But we also receive significant funding from bilateral donors; USAID, the UK Aid, DFID. Then we also receive from individuals, individual donors; and finally, we do some fee-for-service work; a small amount of work for companies and some other actors. So, there’s a little bit of a fee for service. But primarily it’s through philanthropic donations.

Denver: Sticking with your organization, describe for us Chris, the corporate culture of Landesa.  And you as a CEO, how important do you consider this to be… and maybe some of the specific things that you do to help shape and influence the work culture?

Chris: That’s a fascinating question. I helped found two small NGOs early in my career, and I got a sense of some of the challenges of startups; the whole startup culture, which is, I think, not just exclusive to NGOs, but to for-profits as well. Landesa has gone through its startup phase, and what I typically find that to consist of is a number of very passionate founders who are working night and day for something that they consider to be their baby… their lifeblood. This is what they live and die for, and they will sacrifice almost anything for it.

Then as the group hopefully succeeds and grows, you bring in another cohort of people, and these people are also very passionate, but they don’t share the same grounding… same sense of ownership of it. Often, groups struggle at that moment… I have found where you’re moving from ..let’s say… a dozen people and maybe a million dollars, up to a hundred people and ten million dollars. That leap can be very tricky, and what it requires is for those original founders to either bring in folks that are better equipped to manage the kind of bureaucratic challenges and professional challenges, or themselves to develop those capacities. I mean, Roy Prosterman was a law professor. What does he know about building a 200-person, multi-country professional organization? He’s never been to management school as far as I know.  And that’s typical. The same people that start a group are often not the right ones to lead it.

In this case, I think what Landesa has done very well is that it’s recognized that.  and as it has grown, and it has grown now as I said from about $ 1 or 2 million up to our current budget, $16 million, and we’re now up to about 180 people. It has gone through that transformation, and we are today, a much stronger organization because of it. And I think a few things have helped. One is that Roy and his co-founder, Tim Hanstad, recognized that their real passion and their real skill set lay in doing the actual work.  And they have brought in a very professional board to help them through transitions, and we now have a whole suite of professionals that help us manage the organization; a COO, a CTO, a CFO. That’s part of it.

The other part of this culture is, it went from being a very legalistic culture, a group of lawyers, to an organization that has a much more diverse set of skills because it’s not just laws. At the end of the day, you have to have expertise in working with grassroots organizations. You have to understand a broader set of development issues: women’s rights for example and indigenous peoples. You have to understand many more things than just would be typically the domain of a lawyer. So, we now have a diverse set of professionals that run from lawyers to social scientists, to researchers, to activists. Finding that right balance has also been one of the challenges, and I think we’ve done well with that. That gives you a little bit of a sense of it.

Denver: Good description.

Let me close with this, Chris. Giving people title of the land can change a community, and ultimately can really change a country, but it does start with an individual and their family. Can you share with us a story of one who was really transformed as a result of becoming a landowner?

Chris: Yeah. This happened in part before I joined Landesa. But Landesa, as I mentioned, has been working with a number of states in India which are almost like countries. Many of them have more than 100 million people, but we’ve been working with a number of these states on land reform programs.  And one of those programs has been a homesteading program that brings small micro-plots and targets particularly women as landowners.

One of the women that did receive title to a small micro plot went from being landless and living on the margins, to gaining her own land, and I saw her early in my tenure where she was just starting to build a house on that land and a small garden; looked very different than some of the people in areas where she had left where people had houses made of paper and plastic.

Here, she was starting to build a house made of concrete, and when I most recently visited here, she had become the head of the local village council, which was remarkable, and could have not happened if she had not had that piece of land in her name. She had a vision for her community. She had gained the status, the voice, the ability to really exercise her political muscle… as well as building a garden and a home for her family. That transition was just remarkable because it tied the story of land together so perfectly, I think.

Denver: Absolutely a great story. Well Chris, the President and CEO of Landesa, Thanks for being with us this evening. Tell us about your website, what visitors will find there, and how they can support your work if they’re so inclined.

Chris: They can go to on the web and have a look. We provide all sorts of information there, not only about our work but about some of the research that backs up the points that I’ve been making here about how critical land rights are.

And if people are motivated, there are all kinds of ways they can support us financially or otherwise. Really, at the end of the day, we are just looking to recruit more champions for the cause of land rights generally because it’s not just Landesa. There are many organizations out there working on land, and what we really need is a movement. We need more people to step up and speak out for the importance of land rights, and we’re just starting to see that. Anybody listening to this can certainly play a role in one way or another.

Denver: Well thanks, Chris, for being on the program and for sharing the very interesting work of your organization with us.

Chris: Thank you so much.

Chris Jochnick and Denver Frederick

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at

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