The historical roots of the Land Portal | Land Portal

By Paolo Groppo, FAO (R) Territorial Development Officer, grandfather of the Land Portal


In the early 1990s, in 1993 to be precise, perhaps wanting to emulate the concept of the "End of History" promoted by Francis Fukuyama, the U.S. government, thinking that with the dissolution of the Soviet Union the agrarian issue was disappearing from the international agenda, requested the FAO to eliminate the Agrarian Reform Service, of which I was a member.

Those were years of absolute dominance of neoliberal thinking, with the World Bank committed to promoting by the millions and with the necessary political pressure, their Market Based Land Reform approach, which went in the opposite direction of the work historically carried out by FAO since the 1950s. However limited our technical (not to mention financial) capacities were, the FAO, with a technical unit (and a magazine, which came into being in 1963 and of which I was the Editor) that maintained the theme of "reforma agrarian/land reform" in the sense defined by the United Nations, was an obstacle to be removed.

Our Service Chief at the time was an anthropologist from the Land Tenure Center (LTC) at the University of Wisconsin (U.S.), where the creation of a land-related database had been tried, which, for various reasons, had not worked, but which served as a lesson for us in the following months. When he informed us of the U.S. position, he asked us to provide him with arguments that he could share with the Head of Department/Assistant Director General so that the Director General could counter the request.

So it was that I proposed to my colleagues to produce a world map indicating countries where the land issue, in various meanings (conflicts, disputes, land reforms, etc.), was important. Using our contacts and knowledge we managed to map about fifty countries that we colored red in the silent map we had prepared. Recall that the Internet did not yet exist, our map, which was not exactly scientific, was based on the information we had been able to scrape together through our personal contacts with universities (such as the LTC), governments, subject matter experts and newspapers.

The map, sketchy as it was, made a certain impression, partly because, apart from us, no one had better information. So it was that our service was retained, losing the name "agrarian reform" to become "land tenure".

To follow up on that impromptu and critical initiative given the disparate sources, I proposed that we start preparing country "fiches", indicating the basic features of the land system from a historical point of view as well as any problems, all while clearly indicating the sources used. The basic material to start with could be found in the huge library in the FAO basement. It was important for me to place recent agrarian issues back into a historical dynamic, since agrarian structures are not variables that change overnight, so the material accumulated by FAO over the decades was very useful and easy to access.

One of the concrete problems in beginning to prepare the "fiches" was the need to have manpower available. In those years, FAO did not yet have an institutional internship and volunteer program like the current one, but some willingness to accept that young graduates could get experience in a UN agency did appear.

Lack of funds forced us to “tighten the belt” to keep going, so we decided to call this first prototype "BELTS" (there is a well-known expression in Italian: tirare la cinghia – tighten the belt - which means to survive with few resources, as was ours, having no budget at all). The “fiches” were then compiled into a CD rom, forming a kind of digital archive, not yet a real database, so that they could be sent to those who wanted to learn more about the initiative. Then the Internet also came along, with the possibility, in those days, of accessing major newspapers in all countries for free. We then decided to take a further step and add to the "fiches" organized by country, also a page dedicated to ongoing conflicts or disputes, using the information made available by the newspapers.


These were the months of the Chiapas uprising in Mexico, which had brought the issue of conflict over land to the center of world debate. At that time, to ride the wave of publicity, we even entertained the idea of renaming our proposal, "Land Conflict Database" instead of BELTS.

My Director at the time moderately liked the idea, for fear that the theme would be seen as too explosive. So, while encouraging me to go ahead, he closed the door on the conflict theme. With the next Director we managed to get an initial, small budget, thanks to which we proposed to SID (Society for International Development), a well-articulated organization with various UN agencies, to collaborate with us on the program.

In this way we were able to hold a first international seminar in Rome, inviting colleagues from other organizations who were facing the same problem as us: to gather information on the subject of land structures and make it available to the public. It was on that occasion that I met one of the living legends on the subject of land and land reform: old Solon Barraclough, who at that time was still doing some consulting for UNRISD in Geneva. It was a very interesting event attended by colleagues from the Land Tenure Center, IFAD, UNRISD and other specialists from German and French universities.

In order to build this archive/database, there were two central issues: (i) where to find information and data on the agricultural realities of different countries on an ongoing basis, and (ii) how to make it comparable given the differences in the collection and formatting of the same by the various national institutions, public or nongovernmental. A program of this magnitude would have required a very considerable amount of resources, which none of the institutions present at the meeting could make available. I proposed then to turn this bottleneck into an opportunity: if no one can do this archive/database alone, then let's build it together. In a first step we would share the information available, both for the organizations present at the meeting and for any new organization that wanted to join later, and then collectively we would discuss and agree on how the information and data would be formatted and presented, as well as the future "governance" of the BELTS.

This proposal was greatly appreciated precisely because of its openness, modesty, and willingness to start from the bottom in a collaborative way from the beginning. Unfortunately, the Director's vision was diametrically opposed: according to him, FAO should be alone in leading the BELTS and propose that others join in the search for information to share, but not in the conception and guidance.

It was clearly a dead-end street: the FAO had no funds for this initiative and there were no donors sensitive to the issue. To then hope that the institutions involved would share their information for free, without being able to decide on its use, was clearly unthinkable. Thus, it was that, despite the appreciation of all participants, the BELTS, for a few years, practically disappeared from the radar.

A further change of direction was needed so that a new way could be tried, proposing a collaboration with the International Land Coalition (ILC). The ILC (whose original name was: Popular Coalition to Eradicate Hunger and Poverty) was a hybrid organization, halfway between an NGO and an international organization, born at the initiative of a previous FAO Director, thanks to his contacts with the World Bank and IFAD. This idea had arisen at the height of the World Bank's proposal for market assisted/supported/oriented land reforms. The ILC, in their intentions, was to be the "non-governmental" arm in support of this vision, since the nascent Via Campesina had already clearly spoken out against it.

Among the organizations that formed ILC there were some with confirmed "expertise" on the land issue. They were mainly research institutes, not peasant movements, so the ILC was immediately opposed by La Via Campesina (LVC) precisely because ILC could not claim the title of representing the interests of the peasant masses. The political nature of most (if not all) of the organizations that had formed the ILC was clearly progressive in nature, aligned, but not uncritically, with the demands advanced by the LVC. Despite this, to this day, this misunderstanding has not been dispelled, thus contributing to the division of progressive forces working on the issue.

The usefulness of a collaboration with the ILC was related to the institutional recognition it could bring with it regarding BELTS. The political problem with regard to the control of the BELTS, arose in legal terms since the FAO is responsible - alone - for the information (data, documents) that are published in its name, before the member countries. For this reason, the Director who had opposed the participatory and shared construction of the BELTS, was taking the side of the more conservative sectors of FAO who feared, on a potentially sensitive issue, that shared governance might go so far as to approve documents and data that were invisible to certain countries and/or governments.

The hybrid nature of the ILC, could have been an ideal screen for our management's fears that they wanted to avoid direct FAO exposure on these issues at all. It is worth mentioning that the contents of our fiches were already public and would be compiled by citing the respective sources. In other words, there was nothing confidential and nothing that an interested person could not find on his/her own having time on his/her hands.

The ILC Director at the time was apparently very interested in the idea, but instead of proceeding with formalizing the agreement, he decided that the ILC would create its own archive/database through its organizations. His strategy was exactly the opposite of what we had done up to that point: he started by seeking approval from the ILC Council to create a database whose content (and partners) were not yet clear. Being a lighter structure, where the weight of the FAO legal service was less, the proposal was accepted. Thus, it was that the ILC tried to create an alternative proposal to ours.

With the ILC door closed, it was not easy to find someone else interested in the topic. As luck would have it, the occasion of the ICARRD (International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development - Porto Alegre, 2006) had arrived and the new Director of the Division, much more open than the previous ones, as well as proposing me to help him direct the secretariat of the Conference, made available a small budget for our database which, in the meantime, we had renamed LANDTENURE.INFO. At that time ActionAid International (AAI) was also approaching the land issue and, thanks to some very good personal relationships, it was possible to join forces to give the initiative a new impetus. AAI brought in a new network of organizations as well as facilitated the first public presentation on February 22, 2006 in Brussels in the presence of members of the European Commission. More important was then the first public presentation of LANDTENURE.INFO that occurred precisely during ICARRD (March 2006), with a side-event organized jointly with AAI and coordinated by Laura Meggiolaro. This first international public release was followed by another one the same year at the Committee of Food Security (CFS) meeting on November 3, 2006 at FAO.

In the following years, while the ILC program failed to get off the ground, LANDTENURE.INFO had reached an important degree of development so, once again, the question of institutional officialization came back into the discussion. Until then, through technical contrivances, we had been able to collaborate with AAI and the new partners without having to seek authorization from the FAO legal office. But since LANDTENURE.INFO was ready to be made available to the general public - on the website of FAO and other organizations - the request we made for FAO to authorize this initiative met with fear and the consequent negative opinion of FAO lawyers. The hypocritical non-solution that was suggested was that interested technical units could freely participate, but FAO as such could not.

So it was that, knowing of ILC's problems with their database idea, and taking advantage of the arrival of a new Director at the helm of the organization, I proposed to them to merge the two programs: they had the official "blessing" from their governing bodies (where FAO also sat), but they lacked the content. We, on the contrary, had the content but lacked the institutional recognition.

With calm and patience, the thing went through. What remained to be decided was the physical location to house the secretariat of the initiative, which, by bringing together the ILC and LANDTENURE.INFO, was renamed its current name: LAND PORTAL. Once again FAO said no, while the doors were opened by ILC (which in turn was hosted by IFAD). The collaboration went on for a few years, with major new collaborations (such as the Land Matrix, Legend and others) confirming that the initial idea of a public, co-constructed database had been correct.

The next step was due to the work of Leon Verstappen who, in 2014, created the Land Portal Foundation at the University of Groningen (Netherlands), which gave the necessary legal cover.

Thus the current structure was created, with a foundation under Dutch law and a secretariat scattered around the world, all managed through a steering committee and two technical groups. An ad-hoc Advisory Committee, composed of FAO, IFAD and ILC was also created, to support the development of LAND PORTAL.

And so we come to the present day: the Land Portal is a living, structured reality, making available a huge amount of material, information, data, as no other platform is doing on these issues. A page dedicated to conflicts has also been opened, which I was particularly pleased about, after the obstacles of the past. For my part, I register my personal satisfaction with the achievement of goals that, back in 1993, did not seem at all within reach.

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