On land grabs and rural-urban migration


Planet destroyed to make way for hyperspace bypass. Forced to migrate.

Writing for The Guardian, Saskia Sassen argues that at least part of what we label `migration’, specifically rural-urban migration, is being driven by the rise of large-scale land deals in developing countries:

Migrating to the cities is one major option. When politicians drone on mindlessly about more than half the world’s population becoming urbanised, they rarely bring up the diverse ways in which people are being pushed off their land. Where else can they go but cities?

These new migrations are a key marker of our epoch. (Another is the migration of high-level professionals.) They co-exist with older migrations. The rapid changes at point of origin also explain why most migrations are to cities. And they explain new types of migration, from rural areas to the global north (notably from several sub-Saharan countries to Europe).

In effect, expulsions are being rebranded as migrations, a phenomenon that will not cease anytime soon, given the ongoing search for land for crops, mining and water by governments and firms from a growing number of countries.

The causality of Sassen argument is not implausible – large-scale evictions are on the rise, and it’s perfectly possible that some of these people then make their way to urban areas. But is this having any meaningful effect on rural-urban migration? As is frequently the case on the Poverty Matters blog, we have someone desperately asserting something without much in the way of evidence to back up their claims.

It’s hard to read too much into cross-country scatter plots, but indulge me for a moment by taking a look at the following figure, which combines data from the Land Matrix database of large-scale land deals and World Bank data on urbanisation rates and arable land:


On the Y axis we have the average rate of urbanisation a country faced between 2000-2011 (the period covered by the land matrix data) and on the X axis we have the total number of hectares reported sold divided by the  (average estimated) arable land in that country. The left graph uses data on all countries that I could get World Bank Data for (using wbopendata) and the right graph restricts the sample to countries where there has been at least one reported land deal during the period covered. As can be seen, there’s very little in the way of any convincing relationship in any direction between land grabs and urbanisation. The latter is my best back-of-the-envelope proxy for rural-urban migration, although obviously it will also be correlated with within-city growth.

Now, you should interpret this with some caution, as some of the numbers look a bit high (I encourage readers to look into the data themselves, as this is a bit slapdash). I should note that there still doesn’t appear to be a relationship between the two when I use levels instead of changes, or if I use the number of people living in slums as an outcome, nor when I use the total number of land deals a country has seen, the total number of hectares lost, log hectares, or, as above, hectares a percentage of arable land. Nor is there a relationship when I disaggregate the land grab and urbanisation data by year, or when I use lagged values of land grabs.  There is also no relationship when I use a sample including countries which never have a land deal, and restricting it to only countries which have land deals.

Now, this isn’t identified in any reasonable sense – so you should take this purely as descriptive (lack of) evidence. But I think it is safe for us to call most rural-urban “migration” what it is: “migration.”

There are a number of reasons why this is the case. First, it’s not clear that the next-best opportunity for a displaced farmer is the nearest city. Indeed, despite the fact that many land seizures are detrimental to local communities, they sometimes provide job opportunities for recently-displaced land owners. This is not necessarily welfare-enhancing, but would go some way to mitigate the effect that Sassen purports in her article.

Furthermore, there’s growing evidence (also here, here and here) that tenure insecurity actually leads to less, not more,  internal migration and migration abroad, as weak property rights not only force landowners to maintain a physical presence to guard their ownership, but also reduce land liquidity, making it harder to sell and get the hell out of dodge. So we’d actually already expect to see more migration from areas with stronger property rights, which will also be the areas which are going to be shielded from large scale land grabs. This doesn’t necessarily speak to Sassen’s main hypothesis (and might even be hiding any evidence of it), but just shows that the reality might be a little bit more complicated than “migration is just another word for land grabbing.”

A land registry of their own

Over at The Guardian, Renee Giovarelli makes the case that formal recognition of women’s land holdings in rural India will definitely improve children’s nutritional outcomes:

There is growing evidence that the reason for India’s malnourished children is not just empty pockets – it is, specifically, women’s empty pockets. Women in India have a lower status and therefore less control over resources, both land and money, and consequently do not have the leverage to ensure that their children’s needs are met.


Just last year officials in Odisha state opened the first Women’s Land Rights Facilitations Centre. And officials in West Bengal state have begun adding the names of women to all the land titles they distribute in their micro-plot poverty alleviation programme. Officials in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha and West Bengal are working to ensure that more women find their names on the title documents to the land they till.

This will allow women to fill their pockets, cooking pots and children’s bellies – a bumper harvest for their families and communities, and a better future for all of India.

Giovarelli’s argument is that getting women onto land titles leads to a shift in household bargaining power, allowing women to direct more resources to their children. This sort of win-win situation is particularly appealing to those of us concerned with gender equality and the plight of children in poor countries.

Yet, is it true? The eternal conundrum is whether or not formal/legal shifts in ownership actually result in real de facto changes in household bargaining power. This is a standard you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water problem.

Giovarelli presents two empirical studies to suggest that female land ownership does matter: one from Nepal showing that it is associated with better child health outcomes, the other showing that expenditure on food is higher in rural Ghanaian households where women have more control over land. The problem with these studies is that they aren’t convincingly causal – women who enter into marriage with a better bargaining position are likely to both exert ownership over household assets and push for better child health outcomes. Even if land ownership has a causal effect, we cannot be certain that these self-reported, deep-seated indicators of ownership would be affective by formal titling in any meaningful sense.

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Hernando de Soto, eat your heart out

From Uganda, where some land owners really, really don’t want to sell their land:

Finally, one of usual arguments for formal land titling is getting informal owners access to the credit market by letting them pony up their land for collateral. The potential downsides?

These are from Danish researcher Rasmus Hundsbæk’s blog, which focuses on land affairs in East Africa.

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Land tenure can be a touchy issue

It turns out that blogging and research are not complements in the short term, which means that when deadlines approach, blogging slows for a few days as I pour over maps and data from Tanzania. It would be a little bit more fair if I explained what, as a PhD student, I actually do on a day-to-day basis.

Much of my time is spent working on a randomised control trial which is lower the barriers to obtaining land tenure for some residents in the urban slums of Dar es Salaam. We’re trying to figure out if land titling is a feasible activity, what its long term impacts are and what determines the demand.

Unfortunately, I’m too busy to go into much more detail, but can get a good summary of the project from this podcast of Stefan Dercon (my supervisor) and Justin Sandefur of the CGD discussing the project at an IGC conference a few months ago. The corresponding slides (flip through while listening to the podcast) are here.

My name is Mud

There is some lovely filth down here! Now only if we could *title* it.

About two dozen families control specific pieces of the quarry. Each hires its own diggers, sells its own mud, and sets prices independent of each other. No individuals possess formal, legal title to their portion of the mud quarry, but no one considers this strange. Claims on the mud lands stretch back to the years before Uganda’s independence in 1962, when the British managed these parts. Everyone knows that their ancestors bequeathed them the use of a particular patch of the mud quarry. No one has ever asked for proof of their ownership or even tallied the costs of forgoing title in favor of “customary law.”

That’s G. Pascal Zachary on the lack of formal land rights in the mud quarries of the village of Bukhalo in eastern Uganda (hat tip to Chris Blattman). He goes on to discuss the ways that mud `farmers’ manage, and struggle, without formal ownership, comparing them to the regular villages in Bukhalo. One, who has expanding his farm by buying up neighboring land and getting a local judge to verify the claims, eventually moves away from this practice due to legal disputes with others who stake a claim on the land.

The agreements have helped the Sakwa family prosper. But because there are no formal land titles, but only idiosyncratic contracts filed with a local magistrate, disputes are common. Having paid in advance for the use of a neighbor’s land, Mr. Sakwa sometimes faces “submarine” claims by people who say they are relatives of the seller and insist they too should receive money for his use of “their” land.

Blattman thinks that Zachary’s article is a strike against de Soto. I think it meets him half-way: what we get is a fascinating portrait of a village doing the best it can with an informal land system, yet obviously still in need of some sort of formality. I think even hardcore de Soto fans would buy that.

Full disclosure: I work on a land titling RCT in Dar es Salaam, so so find these stories particularly interesting.