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News & Events Law, Property and Disasters: Adaptive Perspectives from the Global South
Law, Property and Disasters: Adaptive Perspectives from the Global South
Law, Property and Disasters: Adaptive Perspectives from the Global South
Law, Property and Disasters: Adaptive Perspectives from the Global South
Law, Property and Disasters: Adaptive Perspectives from the Global South

What is the role of land law in natural disasters? Are current global systems of land law fit-for-purpose as we experience escalating rates of climate disruption?

Daniel Fitzpatrick and Caroline Compton consider these questions in their recent book on Law, Property and Disasters : Adaptive Perspectives from the Global South.The book provides a re-assessment of land law for a future of environmental disruption.

The 21st century poses new challenges for land law as a result of climate change and natural disasters. There is a global crisis of tenure insecurity where as many as a billion urban migrants live in informal settlements. Global land law now seems part of a problem of inequality, as governments deny land rights for vast numbers of displaced or migrant households.

Hundreds of millions of people now living in hazard-prone settlements are vulnerable to marginalization as a result of state-centric land law. When displaced, these types of landholder are vulnerable to exclusion from shelter and livelihoods assistance because they lack rights or documentation in the eyes of the state.

The book is based on detailed case studies of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster in Aceh, Indonesia. Both disasters gave rise to international humanitarian assistance, including attempts to “build back better” through systematic land titling (Aceh) and relocation of coastal settlements (Philippines).

The two case-studies of disaster presented in this book illustrate extra-legal alterations to relationships with land. Those affected settled on land owned by the state. They sub-divided land and altered boundaries without government permission. They re-built on land designated as ‘no-build’ zones.

In Aceh, highly heterodox forms of community land mapping formed the basis for house reconstruction, and involved extra-legal re-configurations of rights and boundaries to land. While many received land titling certificates, relatively few report a willingness to update land registers with subsequent transactions.

In the Philippines, large numbers of the displaced re-built coastal settlements notwithstanding classifications as no-build zones. These people were denied transitional shelter assistance because their settlements were classified as illegal. These settlements are now highly vulnerable to future typhoons because of the lack of shelter assistance from national and international actors.

Both case studies involved legal assumptions of sovereign capacity to control human relationships with land, either through land titling or planned relocation. Yet, as with many other countries in the Global South, both Indonesia and the Philippines have rarely displayed a capacity either to prevent long-term informal settlements, or capture land transactions in land administration systems.

The shortcomings of state-centric land law are revealed with clarity in natural disaster contexts where mass movements of people are placing pressure on sovereign-centered systems of global legal order. Contemporary land law has created mythologies of state control over land which lead government and non-government actors to “see like a state” in relation to population displacement and relocation. 

The book concludes by considering the potential for adaptive land law. This aspect of the book builds on UN-HABITAT’s notion of a ‘tenure ladder’, and the World Bank/International Federation of Surveyors’ advocacy of fit-for-purpose land administration.

The book identifies adaptive land law to include revamped rules on:


  • Eminent domain/claims of state land;

  • The legal status of possession, use and custom;

  • The scope of claims based on adverse possession/acquisitive prescription;

  • The legal status of informal land transactions/transfers;

  • Evidentiary requirements for proof of land rights; and

  • Remedies for landowners which provide alternatives to eviction of informal settlers.


Click Here for more information on the book.


Daniel Fitzpatrick was the land advisor in post-tsunami Aceh for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) from 2005 to 2007. He is the lead author of the UN-HABITAT publication – Addressing Land Issues after Natural Disasters: Guidance for Practitioners. His Land Portal profile is available at