Looking beyond land to support rural youth

Development strategies aimed at supporting young people in small-scale farming cannot afford to limit themselves to issues of land and production.

Sian Lewis's picture
Insight by 
Sian Lewis
30 May 2012
Boys herd family cows in Wakesi, Kenya while dark grey storm clouds gather behind.

Boys herd their family cows in Wakesi, Kenya. Credit: Copyright, Robin Wyatt.

This was one of the conclusions of participants at a provocative seminar ‘Rural youth today, farmers tomorrow? in The Hague last week (24 May).

The seminar — the final in a series of six ‘provocations’ organised by IIED and Hivos — saw policymakers, academics, donors and other development actors gather for two and a half hours of debate around small-scale agriculture and young people — in particular, asking how development policy and practice can support the needs and priorities of rural youth, on- or off-farm.

For many, access to land is key. “All farmers rely on land for income and welfare,” said researcher Xiaobing Wang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. And her comment was echoed by many in the room. George Dixon Fernandez, president of the International Movement of Catholic Agricultural and Rural Youth (MIJARC), said that access to land and productive resources is a pre-requisite for young people to engage in agriculture. “Even with just half a hectare of land, you can be an independent farmer in India,” said Fernandez, “but the problem is you do not have even that.”

And without your own land, your prospects in agriculture are limited to those of a farm labourer, which, argued Fernandez, is far less attractive than being an independent farmer.

Why wait to inherit?

The problem for policymakers and development actors is that improving access to land for young people is not easy. It’s not as if there is an endless supply of land waiting to be claimed or given out to rural youth. In many rural areas, all the potential farmland is already owned, and cultivated by, older community members.

The only way for the young to acquire land in these areas is through inheritance. “And as people live longer, you have to wait a long time to inherit some land,” observed agricultural researcher Felicity Proctor. In many cases, added Fernandez, by the time young people do inherit land, it’s too late — they’ve moved out, made another life and the desire to be a farmer has dried up. What can we do in these cases? How can we, the development community, support rural youth when there is no land to give them?

The audience in The Hague had several suggestions. For some, the answer is still all about land access, and involves finding a way around the inheritance road-block. Fernandez pointed to an initiative in Mexico based on anticipated land transfer — where small-scale farmers give their ‘ejido’ land to their children during their lifetime, in exchange for access to government-backed welfare support.

Don’t just sow and grow

But for others, the solution lies not in land at all. The key is to enable people to engage in agriculture without land, suggested Philippe Remy, of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Animals — that can graze on common land — are one way of doing that, he said. Speaking of his experience in West Africa, he said that with just five or six sheep, young people can begin activities and start an agricultural career that does not rely on land ownership. Another route to supporting young people without land is to focus on non-production activities. Remy pointed to examples in Ghana where rural youth are finding alternative entries to the agricultural value chain while they wait to inherit land. For example, by building, and renting out, storage facilities. These strategies have allowed young people to work alongside their parents without sacrificing their independence. “For them it was a way of entering the value chain and complementing their parents while at the same time being useful, efficient and an agent of change,” said Remy.

Securing access to land is, of course, an important element of strategies to bolster small-scale farming. But the truth is that it is not always a viable solution, particularly when it comes to supporting rural youth. Meeting the needs and aspirations of the next generation requires the development community to cast its net wider and support a broader range of off-farm economic activities.