A few basic facts: there were 1.2 billion youth aged 15 to 24 years globally in 2015, accounting for one out of every six people worldwide. By 2030, the target date for achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the number of youth is projected to grow by 7 percent, to nearly 1.3 billion. Given the size of this population, the world will never be able to meet Goal 1 (ending poverty in all its forms everywhere) without a focus on youth. Moreover, creating livelihoods for these young people will depend heavily on the agriculture sector — in most African countries, the agriculture sector employs an average of 54 percent of the working population. One of the most significant barriers that these youth face in creating a career in agriculture is lack of access to land, something that the development community must address.
Despite the numbers, youth are politically invisible. Youth remain marginalized in formal policymaking and in informal, cultural decision-making where older men remain predominant. In the coming decades this situation will likely change as youth become more active in demanding change, coupled with systemic change from within out of necessity. To understand the dynamics at play, let’s turn to the myths that prevail about youth and their access to land.
Six Myths About Youth and Land
1. Youth Is Just a Phase, Not a Vulnerable Population
This common refrain across cultures — youth is just a phase — is one way to avoid treating youth for who they are: a largely vulnerable population in most if not all developing country contexts, with emergent pockets of striking dynamism nonetheless.
2. Children Do Not Have Land Rights — They Are Just Potential Recipients of Land via Inheritance
Coupled with seeing youth as a phase, older people who control most political and cultural processes in developing countries believe that youth will receive their fair share in due time through inheritance. This avoids the fact that under many constitutions and legal systems, youth — both boys and girls — in fact already have formal rights to land that are often ignored.
3. Youth Are Not Interested in Living in Rural Areas
While many young people who lack opportunity are leaving the family farm for the city, if given the chance most declare a preference for staying and living the life they know. If youth could obtain secure access to land in a timely manner, most would likely stay and invest in their futures in rural areas.
4. Insecure Tenure Is Just a Rural Problem for Youth
Land tenure as a field in development studies has largely been devoted to land and property rights in rural areas. Yet, the burgeoning and dynamic dimension of land in urban areas involving informal or illegal settlements and all the activities that occur in these settlements due to weak or nonexistent policies and laws, is surfacing as a policy area where the impacts of urbanization are being felt the strongest.
5. Youth Do Not Want to Put In the Hard Work of Farming
This stereotype about youth is largely generational and cross-cultural. Youth who move away from farming are assumed to be lazy, but this is often not actually the case. Instead, youth have a perception that it is not possible to make a good living in agriculture after watching their parents’ generation receive little return for their hard work. By showing these youth that farm productivity can greatly improve when farmers use better practices, genuine inputs, and available technology, many young people are eager to make a living in agriculture.
6. Land Is Just a Commodifiable Resource to Be Transacted If Needed
Rural land is becoming increasingly transacted. In the case of families and their neighbors, transactions are often local. In the case of customary chiefs and rural elites, transactions may be with capital city elites or more distant buyers. As land transactions have multiplied in recent decades, often involving city dwellers and foreigners purchasing customarily communal resources from witting or unwitting chiefs, there is a creeping realization in the countryside that land transactions may technically be legal but may lack full transparency within the cultural norms of a given society, undermining communities and youth in particular who depend on functioning customary institutions.