Over the last year or so, Coca-Cola and other companies have committed that they would have “zero tolerance” for land grabbing. They determined that, throughout their operations and supply chains, they would have no tolerance for land deals that dispossess farmers of land without consultation, consent, and fair compensation.

But now this promise is tangled up in the reality that in many countries clear land laws and regulations are not in place and sometimes governments do not have the capacity to create and implement the needed systems.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, an estimated 90 percent of land is undocumented. That means there is no formal way of showing who holds which rights to which land. In fact, governments in Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America have been working for years to create legal and fair approaches to land rights protection, land transactions, public education and consultations about land deals, and valuation and compensation for government or private land takings and investments. Development partners have supported these efforts with both funding and technical assistance. Over the past few years, international organizations have helped to standardize and better articulate good land governance principles.

But documenting land rights, for individuals or for communities, isn’t easy, whether it is done systematically (all land holdings in a specific area) or sporadically (when triggers like sales or leases occur). It is expensive; it can lead to many disputes; and it requires much time and focus on communicating with and training local officials and land holders.

Government programs for documenting and protecting land rights usually require, at a minimum: new or amended laws and regulations, specialized expertise, easy-to-use tools, an ability or system to resolve disputes, consultations with individual users and communities, and training for both women and men. My organization, Landesa, has been working on these challenges for over 40 years.

Despite these efforts and assistance from the development community, the difficult reality is that many governments haven’t and won’t be able to quickly develop and implement these laws and approaches. Some good laws are in place, but the capacity – particularly local government systems and skills –to implement these laws isn’t there.

These fluid and uncertain circumstances are particularly challenging for companies, such as Coca-Cola, who are often operating in advance of these land systems. They must figure out how to do the right thing in this confusing and uncertain governance landscape. When companies want new land or call upon suppliers for zero tolerance for land grabbing, they find themselves needing to perform tasks that, one day, will be done, shaped, or at least made easier by government. These might include: talking to individuals and communities about their land rights; making sure women are a real part of the conversation; helping landholders understand what their land might be worth; formalizing customary rights; negotiating fair bargains; and even creating jobs and other safety nets for families that may transition to other livelihoods.

To show how complicated all of this is, let’s look at the hurdles to making sure women are a real part of the conversation. In many communities women are not free to travel outside of their home to engage in public conversations. In other communities, cultural norms prevent women from speaking at public meetings. Oftentimes, community meetings aren’t held at a time or location that would work for women. In many communities women do not have the public speaking skills or formal education to take advantage of the opportunity to voice their opinion, even if other barriers are removed. You can see that including women will require some real thinking and work.

But I see room for optimism. More private sector players are making clear and strong commitments to good land practices. I hear more and more companies saying things like “zero tolerance,” “socially responsible land investments,” and “no land grabbing in our value chain.” This spreading commitment levels the playing field for all companies and makes doing the right thing less of a competitive disadvantage.

Plus, there are new tools and approaches for both the private sector and governments to use in acquiring and protecting land rights. And more appear every day. I am seeing incredible advances in technology -- better and more frequent satellite imagery, local mapping with drones, in-hand GPS, SMS data collection, and more. Practitioners – both inside and outside of government -- are using smarter approaches to identifying and protecting land rights of both women and men. These approaches include: improved situation and impact assessment tools; increased emphasis on community participation that includes both women and men; more accessible and meaningful grievance mechanisms; standardized sale and lease documents; and stronger enforcement of land deals.

The challenge of zero tolerance for land grabbing remains a big one. But principles for land purchase, lease, and compulsory acquisition are equitable, uniform, and acknowledged by all actors. Technology and approaches to documenting land rights are improving every day. Governments are making progress in developing the ability to govern the land sector well, and the private sector is getting on board and facing the fact that it will have to do some of the heavy lifting. 

David Bledsoe is a senior land tenure attorney and senior director of Corporate Partnerships at Landesa, an NGO working for more than 40 years on the policy, legal, and implementation issues surrounding rural land access and tenure security. For over 15 years, he has worked on land assignments for public and private donors and clients in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Prior, he worked in the for-profit sector for over 20 years.