Amazon land tenure study wins top award

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By Kate Evans, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

The Unamat forest, Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR
The Unamat forest, Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR

Two scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR),Peter Cronkleton and Anne Larson, have received the top award from the journal Society & Natural Resources for a 2015 article on land tenure in the Amazon, which forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

Their paper was judged the most ‘Outstanding Article’ of 2015 for its “innovative and meaningful contribution to the study of society and natural resources and its promise to be influential over time.”

The CIFOR article explored land tenure in a variety of forest communities in Ecuador and Peru – some indigenous, some settler, some with communal land title, some with individual title – and found that these diverse groups shared some surprisingly similar views on land tenure security.

Why did it win?

“The article presents an iconoclastic view of the effectiveness of land titling and questions the clear dichotomy usually drawn between individual and communal property,” says Cronkleton.

A very influential school of thought – known as the ‘property rights school’ and promoted especially by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto – advocates for the wholesale formalization of land ownership through individual titles, even in areas traditionally governed collectively, with the assumption that this will guarantee tenure security and other benefits associated with property.

The CIFOR article explored land tenure in a variety of forest communities in Ecuador and Peru. Photo: CIFOR
The CIFOR article explored land tenure in a variety of forest communities in Ecuador and Peru. Photo: CIFOR

The CIFOR study, however, showed reality is more complex. It found that communities can’t be neatly categorized as ‘individual’ or ‘collective’ – some villages with individual land titles in the study areas displayed forms of collective behavior and land allocation, and vice versa. It also found that formal titling is only the start – it isn’t the only thing that gives people secure rights to their land.

“We showed that in the absence of strong institutional governance, land titling, while important, isn’t sufficient on its own,” Cronkleton says.

“Land titling is often promoted with the assumption that government will be present to provide sufficient institutional support to allow smallholders to benefit from land rights.”

But in remote areas of the Amazon, local and regional governments often have little influence, Larson says. Smallholders can be multiple days’ travel from government offices. In practice, it’s often very difficult to have the title modified when land is divided among siblings, or transferred to another person when it is sold.

Aerial view of Amazon rainforest, Peru. Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR
Aerial view of Amazon rainforest, Peru. Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR

“So the idea that the State is present and is going to solve everything and titles are going to be kept up to date, and that the State really matters, is just a fiction,” Larson says.

“In fact, people were often quite happy with any legal document – in a lot of cases what they had in hand was not a full title but a kind of provisional document that was supposed to be renewed, but they had not even bothered.”


The award-winning study analysed four Amazonian landscapes in Ecuador’s Napo province and Peru’s Ucayali region.  The sample encompassed 21 indigenous and mestizo communities with a mixture of individual and collective property titles. The authors interviewed more than 300 people about their forest and natural resource use and perceptions of land ownership.

What came through strongly across the communities, Cronkleton says, is that while people tend to see formal title as the desirable ideal, there are two other factors that also give people a sense of tenure security: having strong social networks and being a member of an established community, and demonstrating ownership by occupying and using the land.

“Both of these additional factors are seen as very important in legitimizing people’s claim to own a piece of land, even if it’s titled,” Cronkleton says.

This last point has important implications for deforestation. Demonstrating land use is frequently construed as cutting down the trees in order to plant crops.

In addition, in Peru, all forests remain State property, though people are allowed to use them – a situation that creates perverse incentives, Cronkleton says.

“As an unintended consequence of this approach, remnant forest patches are seen as unused, and thus unclaimed, making them ripe for occupation by others,” he says.

“Your typical small farmer in the Amazon would like to have forest patches and regenerating forest on their land. Sometimes policy-makers make that very complicated – often with the misguided notion that they’re taking steps to conserve forests.”


These questions are particularly relevant in Peru, which has just elected a new president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

For decades, the free-market ‘property rights’ view held sway in Peru, but recent government and donor-funded initiatives have supported indigenous communities to recognized and title communal land.

That could now be at risk, Larson says, depending on the priorities of the new government. “To return to some idea that universal individual private property is better for the future of Peru would be a big step backwards,” she says. “It’s really important to recognize the importance of communal lands to the future of forests as well as to the future of indigenous culture.”

Policymakers also need to acknowledge the complexity of forest-dwelling communities, Larson and Cronkleton agree. “If you make broad generalizations about what these properties are and how they function, you’re likely to misunderstand the factors that are influencing people’s behavior,” Cronkleton says.

There is also a need to strengthen government institutions and make it easier for people to use and modify their land titles once they’re granted. “We’re not saying that titling isn’t important. We’re saying that absent these other types of institutions and absent a real effort to take into account how people allocate and distribute land and are utilizing resources, it’s unlikely to be successful,” he says.

“It is going to take more than titling programs to improve governance in some of these areas. There needs to be more effort to understand and accommodate the livelihoods of rural people.”

Peter Cronkleton and Anne Larson won the “Rabel J. Burdge and Donald R. Field Outstanding Article Award”, named for the founding editors of Society & Natural Resources.

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