Landesa Rural Development Institute is a nonprofit organization that partners with governments and local organizations to secure legal land rights for world’s poorest families. Since 1967, Landesa has helped more than 100 million poor families in 35 countries gain legal control over their land. When families have secure rights to land, they can invest in their land to sustainably increase their harvests and reap the benefits—improved nutrition, health, education, and dignity.

Landesa partners with governments, world leaders, NGOs, foundations, donor agencies such as the World Bank, USAID, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and others to design and implement land laws, policies and programs that provide opportunity, further economic growth and promote social justice through land rights.

Based in Seattle, Landesa has program offices in Beijing, China; Bangalore, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Kolkata, India. Landesa currently works in China, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, and Uganda.


Landesa was founded as the Rural Development Institute in 1967 by Professor Roy Prosterman, a Harvard Law School graduate who left his Wall Street career at Sullivan & Cromwell to teach at the University of Washington School of Law where he established the Law in Sustainable Development Program. Troubled by the escalating Vietnam War, Prosterman recognized that secure land rights could provide the rural poor a place to grow food to feed their family and a foundation to raise themselves out of poverty without being forced to join the Viet Cong. His “land to the tiller” program led to a 30% increase in rice production, and an 80% decrease in Viet Cong recruitment.[3]

How Landesa Works

Since its founding, Landesa has had one specific goal: securing land rights for the world’s poorest people. This is because more than two billion people lives in extreme poverty, surviving on $2 a day or less. Of those, more than 75 percent live in rural areas and rely on agriculture for their sustenance. Most do not have secure rights to land and therefore, limited opportunity to build a better future for themselves and their family. True ownership of land in the developing world determines access to shelter, income, education, healthcare, and improves economic and nutritional security.

Landesa attorneys and land tenure specialists craft a variety of land and law-related institutional reforms to help developing countries bring land rights to their poorest. Upon the invitation of the host government, Landesa's staff conducts field assessments, institutional assessments, legislative drafting and policy advice. Landesa then provide assistance with implementing the new land laws, and can help organize pilot programs. Landesa has been involved - on five continents - with land administration consulting, social impact studies, implementation planning, implementation monitoring, training, public education programs, and program design and management. There are typically five primary elements to this work.

  1. Research in the field to identify existing conditions where new land law/regulations/policies could benefit the locals
  2. Design and develop laws and regulations that create and sustain improved land system programs
  3. Advocate the implications and details of the plan to public officials, future recipients, and other stake holders
  4. Implement plan and assist in monitoring the changes; evaluate the new land system in place and make further modifications and improvements where appropriate

One plan will not work for every country, so most of Landesa’s time goes into tailoring its work for each specific location. For instance, Landesa’s “micro-land ownership” program in India provides landless families with a micro-plot as small as 1/10 of an acre on which they can build shelter, grow food to supplement the family diet and income, and raise livestock or start a micro-enterprise. Like the idea that started the “micro-credit” movement, “micro-land ownership” has the potential to provide opportunity for millions of the world’s poorest.

Consulting Services

Landesa’s fee-for-service practice focuses on the legal, policy, institutional, and educational issues of land tenure, land access, land market development, land conflicts, land acquisition and resettlement, and land registration systems.

Landesa employs a staff of more than 120 worldwide, including over 20 senior land tenure specialists with legal, economic, gender and agricultural expertise, complemented by a professional staff with livelihood, natural resource management, economics, sociology, and other social science expertise. Landesa also employs a team of research assistants who provide legal research and writing support.

Landesa’s work focuses primarily on rural and peri-urban contexts in developing and transitional economies. Services include field assessments, institutional assessments, legislative drafting and policy advice, development of follow-on regulations and procedures, technical support for legal assistance, social impact studies, implementation planning, implementation monitoring, training, public education programs, and program design and management.

Global Center for Women's Land Rights

Providing secure land rights to women is essential to addressing poverty and hunger around the world. Today, Landesa works in China, India and post-conflict areas of Africa with a focus on women’s land rights. Women comprise over 50% of the world’s population, are responsible for 60-80% of the world’s food production, yet, in many countries, they cannot inherit or own land. The Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights works to help women and girls transform their communities. There is great potential for change: with secure rights to land, women and girls can improve food security, education, health, and economic development for themselves and their families. When women have secure rights to land, they can become investors in their family's future and ensure that their children's needs are met.

Studies have found that when women have secure rights to land:

  • Family nutrition and health improve
  • Women are less likely to contract and spread HIV/AIDS and are better able to cope with the effects of AIDS
  • Women are less likely to be victims of domestic violence
  • Children are more likely to get an education and stay in school longer
  • Women may have better access to micro-credit

In short, investing in women’s land rights creates an ripple effect that spreads to her family, village, and beyond. However, in much of the world, while women shoulder the burden of food production, they often don't have secure rights to the land they farm. Although they till the fields, they are often barred from inheriting or owning those fields, a prerogative usually left for their husbands and fathers.

To address these challenges and unite the global community in support of women’s land rights, the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights was launched in 2009. Landesa’s Center provides resources and training on women’s land rights and connects policymakers, researchers, and practitioners from around the world. Landesa’s Center pilots solutions to women’s lack of secure land rights. It educates development experts about the gap between customary and institutional law and ensures that this is addressed in Landesa’s projects. Landesa’s Center ensures that women remain a core focus of Landesa’s work to help the world’s poorest.

Current Initiatives

Global Fellowship Program

Landesa's Global Fellowship Program provides training opportunities for qualified professionals seeking to pursue a career in helping to secure land and property rights for women and girls. The program is designed to provide a career path and specialized training opportunities for legal professionals in the U.S., experienced professionals in developing countries who could benefit from comparative experience, and experienced non-legal professionals from NGOs who seek comparative legal knowledge.

e-Library on Women’s Property Rights

Landesa's Global Center for Women's Land Rights is building a database of formal laws related to women's land rights from every country in the world. This “e-library” will also include research on customary law related to women's land rights where available. The e-Library on women’s property rights will be an open-source platform, allowing users to share and post laws and related materials on how those laws are practiced thorough a discussion forum. The e-Library will be cross-referenced via topics (widows' rights, dowry, girls’ inheritance, etc.) as well as by countries and regions in a variety of languages. This helps legal practitioners and women's advocates create more effective and suitable programming.

Girls and Land

Daughters do not traditionally inherit land, because they typically move away from the village to their husband’s home after marriage. Most girls leave their family homes with no economic asset of their own (such as land), leaving them vulnerable and powerless in their new homes. To address this, Landesa is working in partnership with its partners to help girls gain a critical economic asset—land—to reduce their vulnerability to poverty, gender-based violence, HIV, early marriage, and trafficking, and to gain opportunities for a better future.

Awards and honors

Feedback and Praise

“Forty years ago, Roy Prosterman was struck by the non-apparent truth that what keeps the world’s poorest people poor is their inability to own the land they work. Since then, he and [Landesa] (RDI at the time) have shown what wonders can be wrought from a piece of land when the people who till it, own it.” - Bill Gates, Sr. • Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

“The advice of the Rural Development Institute has been more valuable than any foreign technical advice I have received.” - Bekbolot Talgarbekov • Former Minister of Agriculture, Republic of Kyrgyzstan

“RDI’s valuable recommendations have aroused the attention of party and government leaders within China’s central government. . . . They have been extremely impressed by RDI’s unique work methods and focus on providing practical recommendations to existing problems.” - Chen Xiwen • Director, Rural Work Group State Council, Peoples Republic of China

“At the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, we boast that we have helped over 800,000,000 out of poverty; RDI alone has been responsible for half of those.” - Pamela Hartigan • Managing Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship