USAID Land Champion: Stephen Brooks

Tell us about yourself.

I am a Land Tenure and Resource Governance Advisor in the Land and Urban Office in USAID’s Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3). Within the Land and Urban Office, I advise and manage activities that touch upon natural resource governance issues associated with a range of topics, including coastal, forest, and marine tenure, community-resource mapping and customary rights. I also serve as the Land and Urban Office’s point of contact on land governance in Asia as well as urban and water tenure issues globally.

Why is land governance important to USAID?

The consideration of land and resource governance is essential to addressing development issues globally. Understanding the complex relations between people, communities, institutions and the resources they rely on is central to responsible and transformative development. In the absence of strong resource governance systems and secure property rights, development efforts too often fail to produce lasting benefits that advance partner countries’ journeys to self-reliance.

How is land and resource tenure connected to forest and marine issues?

In the development context, the focus of tenure work has largely been associated with agriculture and rural development. Now, we are increasingly seeing the importance of applying a tenure lens to issues associated with a range of resources beyond land, including forests and marine and coastal resources. For example, in some countries, recognizing a farmer’s right to land does not necessarily confer rights over the trees growing on it (tree tenure), including trees associated with important tree crops. When the principles of tenure are taken offshore and applied to coastal and marine resources, they fit very nicely within ongoing discussions on how to improve coastal and marine-based livelihoods and the ecosystems they depend on. Specifically, using a tenure-responsive approach within coastal communities offers a framework to understand the complex layers of use rights that overlap each other in the coastal interface.

How is USAID working to transform communities through coastal resource management and mangrove forest restoration approaches that address tenure? What are some of the challenges?

Due to the dearth of information on coastal and marine tenure, USAID has worked with partners to develop a better understanding of resource governance constraints to improving coastal and marine-based livelihoods. Coastal communities are some of the most economically depressed and vulnerable in the world. Their incomes are almost entirely reliant on near- and offshore resources. With increased populations and coastlines facing greater pressures and threats, there is an increased need to understand the social and biophysical dynamics of these coastal systems. To date, the majority of research on coastal forest management focused on biophysical variables, with little consideration of the role of tenure. In partnership with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), USAID conducted a global assessment of mangrove governance, with specific deep dives in Indonesia and Tanzania. The findings from the effort provided important guidance on specific tenure-related trends and considerations to inform future programming. For example, the findings highlighted the crucial role women play in coastal resource management and their lack of access to important economic development incentive programming. The work also highlighted the important role participatory planning processes serve in informing decentralized co-governance and natural resource management arrangements.

What are some of your biggest accomplishments in the land sector?

I consider the recently completed Tenure and Global Climate Change program to represent a significant achievement. I was lucky enough to be able to actively design, manage and guide many of the sub-tasks within Zambia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Ghana, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Through this experience we improved global and Agency understanding of a wide range of issues: customary and community tenure over land and resources; the role of tenure in REDD+ programming, fisheries and coastal forest management; gender, resource rights and global climate change; and linkages between strengthened resource rights and deforestation-free commodity supply chains. Additionally, the program’s contribution to the passing and recognition of the National Land Use Policy in Myanmar was a particularly exciting milestone for our work.

Final thoughts?

Over the past 30 years, USAID has served as a leader in elevating the importance of land and resource governance as a foundational consideration for successful development. And, although there are many challenges related to land, we continue to learn more every day about the necessary enabling conditions for appropriate and successful land and resource governance activities. I am truly grateful to be a part of this work and contributing to this legacy.