There are multiple factors that influence the way we as human beings see the world.  Education, culture, and particular disciplines, professions, and institutions all provide us with narratives, conceptual frameworks, and biases.  These become lenses through which see and interpret the world.  This is unavoidable, as no human mind is a blank slate.  We need categories, concepts, metaphors and theories in order to make any sense of the world at all.  However, these lenses can also blind us to new information and prevent us from seeing novel solutions to our problems—sometimes even preventing us from seeing problems at all.


Different ways of seeing land

This is certainly true for professionals whose work is intimately concerned with land.  Different professions and disciplines conceive of land in different ways; they see it through different lenses.  For some, land is understood as a resource, furnishing the materials that people use to produce products, fuel industry, and create livelihoods.  From this perspective, land is defined by what it provides.  For a geographer on the other hand, land might be seen primarily as spaces where social processes take place.  From this perspective, land is defined by spatial relationships:  location, extent, proximity, adjacency, and, especially, spatial connections.  From another vantage point, land is seen as habitat.  Land viewed through this lens is defined by the organisms and ecosystems that it hosts.

In Western societies, land tends to be seen first and foremost as property.  In one version of this perspective, land is an object to be owned, defined by boundaries and by who does and does not have rights to it.  For people who study property rights and land tenure, however, the picture is more nuanced, with land potentially being subject to different combinations of rights.  In this bundles of rights perspective[i] land is still understood as property, but in some situations, individuals or groups may possess a combination of rights that is more complex than implied by the word ownership.

At an individual level, these different lenses compete for cognitive space, and at a societal level, they shape discourses on land.  Ultimately, they influence the strategies and approaches that different organizations and agencies adopt in relation to land.  They shape how we conceive of governance challenges for land and the potential solutions, both predisposing us to favor particular kinds of policies and governance tools and pushing some other possibilities beyond our conceptual framework so that they are not even imagined.  While I am not suggesting that there is an inescapable disciplinary determinism at work here, or that people from particular professional, disciplinary, or cultural backgrounds are incapable of adopting novel perspectives, I do believe that different lenses for understanding land can predispose us toward particular default option for policy and governance.


Alternative ways of thinking about land governance

For example, viewing land as habitat predisposes us to conceive of the primary challenge for land governance to be the challenge of protecting land from human activity.  From this perspective, the default policy tool is the creation of parks and other kinds of protected areas within which human activity is excluded or at least constrained.  Alternatively, when land is seen as space, it leads us to see governance challenges in terms of spatial relationships: what happens where, how different spaces are separated from each other and connect to each other, and how different people, activities and processes relate to each other in space.  For challenges conceived in this way, the default policy choice would seem to be land use planning.  And when land is seen as property, the perceived governance challenge centers on defining and enforcing ownership or rights, and the default policy response is implementation of land tenure systems.

The idea that these lenses influence policy choices does not mean that such choices are a foregone conclusion.  Even if one particular perspective dominates, there are still choices to be made.  If I conceive of land as ecosystem or habitat, for example, this does not automatically mean that I favor fortress conservation.  In many contexts, protected areas that are governed by communities might be the most appropriate option.  Alternatively, if I conceive of land as property, this does not necessarily mean I assume it should be private property; practitioners and policymakers increasingly recognize that communal land tenure is a viable and legitimate option.  And even this distinction of private versus communal land tenure oversimplifies the range of possibilities available:  different kinds of rights over land can be bundled together in varied ways that are not reflected in the simplistic categorization of land tenure into private property, state property, and community property.

In other words, within each particular perspective, there are still choices to be made.  Furthermore, as I mentioned above, I am not suggesting that a conservationist who thinks of land as habitat is incapable of imagining governance solutions other than protected areas, or that a geographer who thinks of land as space is incapable of imagining governance solutions other than land use planning.

Nevertheless, I believe that such lenses do have a tendency to bend our thinking in particular directions.  A first step toward expanding the land governance toolkit is to adopt a diversity of perspectives, to recognize that land can be seen as property, or as space, or as resource, or as habitat.

Word cloud: Land governance lenses

Another possibility

But what about when land is seen as home?

This lens is too seldom adopted by researchers, policymakers, or even lands rights activists.  When land is conceived of primarily as home, it is not defined chiefly in terms of spatial relationships, or boundaries and rights, or the organisms it hosts, or the materials it provides.  These can all be relevant, even vital, to people who call a particular piece of land “home”.  But when land is seen first and foremost as home, it is defined by stories and history because it is through stories and history that land takes the shape of home in an individual’s mind and in a people’s culture.

When land is conceived of primarily as home, it is not defined chiefly in terms of spatial relationships, or boundaries and rights, or the organisms it hosts, or the materials it provides.… it is defined by stories and history. Click To TweetFrom this vantage point, any and all of the governance challenges I’ve mentioned can be important:  the need to protect natural habitats, the need to coordinate activities and processes in space, the need to clarify rights, and more.  However, from this vantage point none of the particular policy options I’ve referred to—land tenure, protected areas, and land use planning—present themselves as obviously superior to any of the other policy options.  What a lens of land as home does imply for the land governance toolbox is the need for deliberation.

Examples of participatory and deliberative governance processes are many: citizen’s juries, multi-stakeholder panels, consensus conferences, community assemblies, and innumerable indigenous collective decision-making processes, to name a few.  Deliberative governance mechanisms are decision-making spaces through which people debate, draw on evidence and experiences, search for consensus, and share stories.  As you work toward transformative land governance with and for people who call a particular expanse of land “home”, take the time to listen to their stories.  And in devising policies, programs and projects around land, make space for deliberation.

[i] Three key readings on the notion of tenure as bundles of rights are:

Benda-Beckmann, Franz von, Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, and Melanie Wiber. 2006. The Properties of Property. In Changing Properties of Property, 1–39. New York: Berghan Books.

Schlager, Edella, and Elinor Ostrom. 1992. Property-Rights Regimes and Natural Resources: A Conceptual Analysis. Land Economics 68 (3): 249–62.

Sikor, Thomas, Jun He, and Guillaume Lestrelin. 2017. Property Rights Regimes and Natural Resources: A Conceptual Analysis Revisited. World Development 93: 337–49.