Seattle nonprofit is honored for work that uses land rights as an anti-poverty tool.

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A person who owns land is likely to have a better future than someone who works another person’s land. That idea is behind the success of Landesa, a revolutionary organization started by a University of Washington law professor.

On Wednesday, Landesa, the Seattle-based nonprofit Roy Prosterman created, was awarded the $2 million Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Award.

Prosterman, who’s still actively involved, left a Wall Street job in the 1960s to fight against the inequality he’d seen in places like Liberia and Puerto Rico. He came to the UW and began using the law to get land rights for poor families.

Tim Hanstad, one of his former students, shares that passion and gets credit for growing Landesa into a global operation with a reputation for helping move people out of poverty and curing multiple social ills in the process.

Hanstad was in New York City for the announcement. We spoke by phone about the power of land rights and the organization’s move into a new stage.

He said people in New York were impressed by how much good global work comes out of Seattle.

I asked why he dedicated his career to fighting poverty. He said he grew up in Mount Vernon, one of nine kids in a one-bathroom house. “I can trace my interest in international development and social justice to working in the fields with migrants from Mexico,” he said. Many of those migrants were so poor they lived in their cars. They told him their stories of trying to escape deep poverty in Mexico.

People shouldn’t have to live like that.

“There are at least 300 million poor rural men in the world,” he said, “and at least twice that many women who depend on land for their livelihood, but who don’t have secure rights to that land.”

We’ve made more progress on poverty alleviation in our lifetimes than in all of previous human history, he said. Landesa has contributed to that success.

Landesa works with governments and other organizations to change laws and policies that make it possible for people to get land rights. They say they’ve helped 115 million families in 50 countries so far.

On its website are descriptions of how it works in specific areas, through a mix of approaches. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, India, Landesa working with government partners established two legal-aid clinics and in partnership with a local university established a land-rights center. It’s working with the state government to revise tenancy laws to allow more women to lease land.

When poor rural farmers get rights to land, Hanstad said, food production goes up and so does income and wealth. So a family in a Rwandan village that got title to the land they worked, used the land to secure a loan to buy a cow.

Not only that, but families can make long-term investments, domestic violence drops and so do teen-pregnancy rates. Just about everything gets better, especially when women share in those land rights.

Hanstad offers a piece of U.S. history to make a point about the power of land ownership. He cited a study of African-American families that followed the generations after slavery and found that those who had land early fared much better in later generations. Imagine, he asked, what a different country this would be if freed people had actually gotten that promised 40 acres and a mule?

Think about the Homestead Act that drove westward expansion and gave countless families a start toward prosperity. And we know what happened to native people whose land was taken during that expansion. Land matters.

Landesa now wants to be a more vocal advocate for the power of land rights. It’s opening an office in Washington, D.C., where it can be part of more conversations about global development. And it’s collaborating more with governments, other nonprofits and universities to use land rights to both fight poverty and to support the goals of other organizations, from climate change to women’s rights.

Hanstad, who led Landesa for more than two decades, stepped down in late August in favor of a new CEO, Chris Jochnick, who came from Oxfam, and will lead the advocacy work. (Hanstad’s new title is co-founder and senior adviser.)

The prize will help Landesa spread the good news that people can work their way out of poverty if they’re given a chance. And we’re all better off when that happens.