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Rule of law and Food systems transformation dialogue

To mark World Food Day 2023, IDLO, KPSRL, LANDac, and NFP co-convened a dialogue between stakeholders in the food security, land governance and rule of law communities to foster engagement between Dutch and international policymakers and practitioners, and explore practical opportunities to advance cooperation and coherence at the nexus of action on SDGs 2 and 16.

Five panelists shared their insight and engaged with the audience on a range of topics that speak to the rule of law, land governance and food systems. This blog summarizes the dialogue.

Nexus of rule of law and food systems

One of the primary ways in which the rule of law is important for transforming food systems relates to access to land and natural resources. To bring about food system transformation not only do the drivers of large-scale agricultural production need to be changed, it is vital that smallholders and their property rights need to be included in an effective way in food systems. Indeed, inclusion of smallholders should happen throughout the value chains.

In contexts of protracted conflicts food is used as weapon, not only through starvation, but also cutting people off from their fields and trade networks. In such contexts, the challenge is to move from food aid to addressing the systematic causes of the conflict. If peace is to improve food security, an emancipatory peace perspective needs to be implemented rather than a liberal peace paradigm that builds on industrialized food systems.

Rebecca Monson (ANU) presented the case of Kiribati, which was mined for phosphor for the production of fertilizer used by farmers in Australia. This example illustrates the double land loss and the vulnerable position of indigenous people: by the local people in Kiribati who had to make way for the mines, and by the aboriginal people who lost their land to white settlers and their system of large-scale agriculture. Neither of these groups were able to protect the rights to their lands.

Rule of Law

In many contexts, there is no problem with the law, but there is challenge with implementation according to Rea Abada Chiongson (IDLO).  Laws don’t operate themselves by themselves, they need policies to get to implementation. In reality arbitrary use of power is pervasive in ‘bad’ land governance. Those who have to respect the law are not respecting the laws.

Legal land reforms centralize the concept of individual property rights, which finds its implementation in mapping and registration of land parcels. Collective land is no longer being recognized. Property rights draw a boundary around the land, but also around the people. In such contexts, how can we engage in access to livelihoods without having disputes? The panelists stress the importance of customary systems, which are explicitly  mentioned in SDG5. In debates these customary systems are often presented as ‘bad’ as opposed to state systems which are ‘good’. The reality is often more complex, with customary systems offering a vital channel to justice for large groups of people.

Colombia was used as the only case of transitional justice and land reform. But, Gemma van der Haar (WUR) argued that this case shows the paradox of humanitarian interests vs commercial interests, where interests established during the conflict have not been addressed.

Vulnerable groups

The third aspect that formed a thread throughout the dialogue was the position of vulnerable groups. These include smallholder farmers, women, but also informal workers throughout the value chain, all the way through to street sellers. As Barbara Codispoti (Oxfam) said “Those closest to natural resources are furthest from access to the rule of law.”

To strengthen women’s access to food and justice, it was said that they should be centered in decision-making, and women’s groups need financing and technical support. Whereas historically women held leading positions, these positions have been erased in our vocabulary. Historical leading position of women has been erased in our vocabulary.

The panelists all iterated the importance of collective action required to make the voices of vulnerable groups heard as individuals cannot change the system. Murtah Shannon (Both ENDS) underscore that participation of vulnerable groups in itself is not good enough, it needs to extend into decision-making. Interventions should include building the confidence and negotiation capacity of vulnerable people.

Safe spaces for dialogue, for decision-making, but also for justice, are essential. This is particularly important in contexts where legal systems on paper are strong. Civic space and voice are pushing us to think more broadly and look at land as sustenance and kin (not as property).


A recurring term during the dialogue was “silofication”, indicating that there is still a divide between the rule of law, the food systems, and the land governance communities. It was referred to when talking about policy, about the way in which development organizations are coordinated, and academics. Even the SDGs, which were formulated as a complete set of goals that all related to each other, are used with a cherry picking approach. Rule of law practitioners focus on SDG16, food system refer in their work to SDG2, overlooking the relationships with other development goals.

Looking forward

During the dialogue  three knowledge gaps were identified:

  1. Emancipatory peace and food sovereignty. What can we learn from the connection between peace building and food systems research?
  2. Understand how people buffer. How do they achieve resilience? What strategies do they seek? What is key to their resilience. What tenure arrangements would support these strategies? How can we see food as dignity (beyond the calories)
  3. Food aid is massive. What are the value chains for this aid, what are the due diligence processes?

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs recognized much of the points brought to the table by the panelists. They have taken some first small steps in building bridges between the silos. In the LAND-at-scale program the rule of law plays a considerable role in combination with land governance and food security. Their new food systems approach looks to integrate water, justice and other actors in policy formulation and implementation.

The participants appreciated the dialogue, acknowledging the many touching points of the different disciplines. There is much to learn from, and with, each other.