Tenure: globally accepted standard

Safe as houses

6 May 2016

As new voluntary guidelines become the globally accepted standard, Paul MunroFaure reflects on the enduring importance of tenure


We are all familiar with that old adage that possession is 9/10ths of the law. In many parts of the world, this is as true now as it ever was. And, of course, it was true of England in times past.

The enormous dislocations associated with the Wars of the Roses in 15th-century England and Wales made land ownership a tenuous affair. The letters of the Paston family of Norfolk, one of only 4 fairly comprehensive sets of family letters that remain from that period, show how much time and effort was needed to maintain tenure.

Gresham, a fine moated house in Norfolk, was purchased by the Pastons from Thomas Chaucer, son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in 1428, in what was regarded as a legal transaction. But the property had been the subject of confused claims and counter-claims for almost a century, such that, in 1448, 20 years after the Pastons’ purchase, Lord Moleyns claimed it and seized it by force.

Some 3 years later, after exhausting all attempts to remove the usurpers by judicial restitution, the Pastons instructed their servants to retake possession. The house was in such a state of disrepair that it was beyond restoration, and was abandoned. It remains today an overgrown landmark in a field outside the village of Gresham.

The international picture

Tenure matters more now than ever. While Europe has stable systems of tenure, there are many places in the world where this is not the case. When the UN was set up in 1945 it faced massive challenges. Europe was in chaos, millions had lost homes. One of the first official appointments of the embryo Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) was that of a land tenure officer.


Tenure matters more now than ever. While Europe has stable systems of tenure, there are many places in the world where this is not the case

Even today, in many countries, it is advisable to keep a property occupied 24/7 to prevent others taking unauthorised possession. This has implications for everything in the social, cultural and economic landscape, ranging from discouraging investment to limiting children's attendance at school so they can safeguard the family's property. It restricts development fundamentally.

In the mid-2000s the UN, led by the FAO, began to address the tenure challenges posed by development pressures, urbanisation, population growth, economic development, climate change, corruption and other factors. As part of this process, the UN's Committee on World Food Security endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security in May 2012.

These guidelines are a huge step forward, advancing the cause of people's legitimate tenure rights.

What are the guidelines?

  • The guidelines offer a global consensus on internationally accepted principles and standards for responsible practices in governance of tenure, recognising and respecting people's legitimate tenure rights. They serve as a tool to improve the governance of tenure for the benefit of all, in particular vulnerable and marginalised people, aiming for food security and progressive realisation of the right to adequate food, sustainable development and environmental protection.
  • They are not legally binding, neither do they replace existing national or international laws, commitments, treaties or agreements. They do not limit or undermine any legal obligations that states may have under international law.
  • They are an essential mechanism in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.
  • The guidelines offer a framework that states can use when developing their own strategies, policies, legislation, programmes and activities.
  • They allow governments, civil society, the private sector and citizens to judge whether their proposed actions and those of others constitute acceptable practices.
  • They also seek to improve the policy, legal and organisational frameworks regulating the range of tenure rights that exist over these resources.

While the voluntary guidelines were prepared in the context of food security, they also contribute to other development goals, including poverty eradication, sustainable livelihoods, women's tenure rights, social stability, housing security, rural development, environmental protection and sustainable social and economic development.

Clear targets

The global community agreed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to cover the first decade and a half of the millennium. However, the MDGs made no reference to issues relating to tenure – how real property is held, accessed and administered.

Following the voluntary guidelines, this has changed with the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the period 2015–30. Formally adopted by the UN General Assembly in New York on 25 September 2015, the SDGs include clear targets putting tenure firmly on the global agenda, ensuring:

  • that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property
  • that agricultural productivity and the incomes of small-scale food producers – in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers – are doubled, by ensuring their secure and equal access to land
  • that reforms give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property
  • that access to adequate, safe and affordable housing is ensured.

Since 2012, there has been an extraordinary increase in awareness of the importance of, and the potential for, the voluntary guidelines to make a real difference through responsible governance of tenure, which has been strongly reinforced by the SDGs.

The voluntary guidelines have effectively gone viral, with astonishing levels of take-up across all stakeholder groups reflecting a shared commitment to their development and application.

Many civil society organisations, including ActionAid, Caritas, Oxfam and others, are using the guidelines to help people safeguard their tenure rights.


Since 2012, there has been an extraordinary increase in awareness of the importance of, and the potential for, the voluntary guidelines to make a real difference through responsible governance of tenure

The private sector is taking up the challenge as part of corporate social responsibility initiatives, with global brands such as the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Cargill using the guidelines in their policies. Academia is also producing detailed technical guides in specific areas to support implementation and student learning.

The guidelines have changed the discourse and landscape on tenure rights at global, regional and country levels. They are changing global strategies by escalating recognition of the fundamental, cross-cutting importance of tenure in addressing many developmental, environmental and other issues. Tenure and the voluntary guidelines principles were significant in the COP21 climate change discussions that led to the historic agreement in Paris in December 2015.

New conversations

Because the guidelines present a neutral framework agreed by all parties, they are enabling a diverse range of stakeholders to have new conversations and work together productively.

States are taking up the guidelines, and donors are supporting countries in their implementation. The government of Guatemala, for example, recently passed a new land policy into which the guidelines were integrated.

Sierra Leone is championing the guidelines in their reviews of legislation. Government policy-makers and other stakeholders in several countries of the western Balkans are planning to increase gender equality in access to land. The international community, through the Global Donor Working Group on Land is progressively and openly sharing information that is enabling donor coordination to be improved to help implement the guidelines.

Long road ahead

The work is just a start in recognising and respecting people's tenure rights and creating appropriate administrative systems that will help realise these rights.

More awareness is needed, especially at the national level, and greater capacity is required at all levels and across all groups. Further national-level work, drawing on more and stronger partnerships, is at the root of successful change, and more monitoring will be essential to be keep track of progress.

The FAO and many others see considerable opportunities for moving forward by strengthening partnerships with and between governments, civil society organisations, the private sector and academia. These will also involve the professions concerned, including those represented by RICS, which has been a long-standing partner in this work by sharing experiences across countries and developing capacities more widely to encourage greater implementation of the guidelines on the ground. 

Paul MunroFaure is Deputy Director of the Climate, Energy and Tenure Division of the FAO in Rome, and has led the organisation’s tenure team since 2000

Further information

This article is based on a lecture given by the author in acceptance of the RICS 2015 Michael Barrett Award. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the FAO.

Related competencies include:

This feature was taken from the RICS Land journal (March/April 2016)