The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (direct link here) were adopted on 11 May 2012 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Committee on World Food Security following a three-year process of development by 700 delegates from 133 countries.

The Guidelines have been endorsed by Governments around the world and were most recently supported by the 2013 G8 Summit in Lough Erne and featured in Sections 43-45 of the G8 Communique. The UK Government is actively following the Guidelines in relation to its overseas development programmes as highlighted in its 2013 G8 Presidency Report (pg14). The map below shows the countries where the UK is engaged in land governance projects. See the Land Governance Programme Map for further information.

As stated in the Preface,

The purpose of these Voluntary Guidelines is to serve as a reference and to provide guidance to improve the governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests with the overarching goal of achieving food security for all and to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security.

These Guidelines are intended to contribute to the global and national efforts towards the eradication of hunger and poverty, based on the principles of sustainable development and with the recognition of the centrality of land to development by promoting secure tenure rights and equitable access to land, fisheries and forests.

One of the most interesting thing about the Guidelines is that they are global in scope. For too long, many so-called developed countries have developed policies and guidelines which they enthusiastically promote in other countries but when asked whether such practices are adopted at home, they look sheepish. Twenty years ago I remember engaging the UK representative at a UN meeting about the millions of pounds being given to promote the transfer of control of state forests to local communities in the Highlands of Nepal when, at the same time, the Scottish Office was in open opposition to any such efforts in Scotland. So, it is welcome to read that,

Taking into consideration the national context, they may be used by all countries and regions at all stages of economic development and for the governance of all forms of tenure, including public, private, communal, collective, indigenous and customary. (2.4)

They can thus be applied to Scotland. Professor James Hunter highlighted their significance in his discussion paper for Community Land Scotland, Rights-based land reform in Scotland: Making the case in the light of International experience (see here for further info). The Guidelines form a very useful template for any tenure reform here. For example,

11.2 ……..States should take measures to prevent undesirable impacts on local communities, indigenous peoples and vulnerable groups that may arise from, inter alia, land speculation, land concentration and abuse of customary forms of tenure. States and other parties should recognize that values, such as social, cultural and environmental values, are not always well served by unregulated markets. States should protect the wider interests of societies through appropriate policies and laws on tenure.

14. Restitution

14.1 Where appropriate, considering their national context, States should consider providing restitution for the loss of legitimate tenure rights to land, fisheries and forests. States should ensure that all actions are consistent with their existing obligations under national and international law, and with due regard to voluntary commitments under applicable regional and international instruments. 14.2 Where possible, the original parcels or holdings should be returned to those who suffered the loss, or their heirs, by resolution of the competent national authorities. Where the original parcel or holding cannot be returned, States should provide prompt and just compensation in the form of money and/or alternative parcels or holdings, ensuring equitable treatment of all affected people.

15. Redistributive reforms

15.1 Redistributive reforms can facilitate broad and equitable access to land and inclusive rural development. In this regard, where appropriate under national contexts, States may consider allocation of public land, voluntary and market based mechanisms as well as expropriation of private land, fisheries or forests for a public purpose.

15.2 States may consider land ceilings as a policy option in the context of implementing redistributive reforms.

15.3 In the national context and in accordance with national law and legislation, redistributive reforms may be considered for social, economic and environmental reasons, among others, where a high degree of ownership concentration is combined with a significant level of rural poverty attributable to lack of access to land, fisheries and forests respecting, in line with the provisions of Section 15, the rights of all legitimate tenure holders. Redistributive reforms should guarantee equal access of men and women to land, fisheries and forests.

I look forward to seeing what the Land Reform Review Group (due to publish its findings next week) makes of this important international agreement and whether the Scottish Government intends to join the long list of administrations committed to putting the Guidelines into practice.


  1. Reiner Luyken

    You seem to ignore deliberately the conditionality of the recommendations on “the overarching goal of achieving food security for all” and “a significant level of rural poverty attributable to lack of access to land, fisheries and forests”. Where these conditions do not prevail, such as in most parts of Europe, including the UK and Scotland, they are meaningless. In Scotland in particular, the land reform agenda seems to be driven primarily by an emerging rural middle class with no more than a hobby interest in land.

    • Robbie Pennington

      The whole of Scotland is impoverished by the land monopolists, so I guess that includes us in.

    • More interesting to consider how would we define the class of those who oppose reform?

      • Reiner Luyken

        I would say, working crofters would do, Noel. The land reform empowers a cabal holding all positions within a community, such as chairman of the community council and the local “community development organisation”. With us, four out of a working population of 158 are employed as “development officers”, with a fifth of these non-jobs having just received funding approval. The search for funding, i.e. the diversion of money from those designated by the government as cash cows to those who subscribe to its ideology, is the primary political activity. Local democracy is supplanted by waste and inefficiency in the style of the Co-op Bank. The control over land is shifted out of private hands either to “community bodies” or to “charitable” organisations like the John Muir Trust or the Scottish Wildlife Trust, all of whom are beholden to the government, and do the government’s bidding. Indoctrination of the new elite takes place during countless workshops, research trips and away-days for those who belong to the inner circle. Whoever doesn’t speak the jargon of “community empowerment” and “sustainability” is left behind. Whoever speaks up against this new state of affairs is excluded from public life. A friend informed me recently while hitching up the road to Tarbert he got a lift with the ex-secretary of the Gigha Community Trust who had been “in post” for seven years, a Gaelic-speaking native of Gigha who served for thirty years in the British Army all over the world. He described the evolution and aftermath of the buy-out project in exactly the way I do above. Now, he told my friend, NOBODY goes to meetings (which are all about “funding”), and so anyone who wants a job simply has to show up to be elected “by acclaim” to a job which gives them an element of fiscal power.

  2. Some of the UN’s ideas are very nice but ineffective. The UN has been spouting against poverty for decades. Its ‘sustainable development’ idea actually promotes it. Useful post about the issue, though, Andy. National governments should all adopt Land Value Tax as a policy. That would sort it, or start the process, anyway.

  3. Maybe the UN could intervene in our feudal nightmare and divvy it all up a bit better.

    • Hector
      Sadly, the UN is almost entirely responsible for the ‘community development’, ‘sustainability’, ‘community empowerment’ etc. jargon and activities described by Reiner above – all consequences of the desire of the very well-heeled to feel they are simultaneously doing good and doing well – without actually changing anything. The attitude is of owners and executives and differs fundamentally from those who are landless and poor. The UN has spouted and printed innumerable amounts about poverty and inequity while its staff earn more in a year than the poor earn in a lifetime. The UN is able to exist because it is so useless and wasteful and also makes powerful people feel good. I don’t know how much it could or would ever be able to ‘divvy up’ the nightmare that we have here.