Landesa, which works with governments to establish and enforce land-title programs for some of the world’s poorest people, has been awarded the 2015 Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
The group, established in 1981 by land-rights pioneer Roy Prosterman, will use the unrestricted $2 million to bring more attention to the issue of land rights globally, said Chief Executive Chris Jochnick.
"Where in the past much of our efforts have been focused quietly working with governments, and working with communities, we now want to be more engaged with what is really an incipient land-rights movement at the global level," Mr. Jochnick said in an interview in Washington several days before the award was made public Wednesday.
The organization has a $12-million annual budget and 130 staff members worldwide, according to Mr. Jochnick.
Factors including middle-class growth in China have created incredible stresses on land across Asia and Africa, Mr. Jochnick said, with mining and agriculture companies making land grabs at high rates.
Most vulnerable are poor farmers and others living in places without formal land-title policies and enforcement.
"It’s not just a problem for the farmers, it is also a source of much unrest and civil conflict," Mr. Jochnick said. "Many governments recognize that ensuring that the people that live on the land have secure title is one step toward more stable societies."
When properly implemented and enforced, land titles can help reduce food insecurity and boost economic prosperity for marginalized populations, he said. Among other things, Landesa works to ensure that women’s names are included on land titles so that when husbands die, they are less at risk for being pushed off their plots. In West Bengal, tens of thousands of girls are being taught gardening and other skills, which are valuable to families and, in some cases, help delay early marriages.
"Where Landesa intervenes is more at the front end of trying to make sure that people actually have the legal title in advance to prevent those kinds of land grabs," Mr. Jochnick said.
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation said in September it had increased the monetary value of its namesake prize from $1.5 million to $2 million. The inaugural recipient of the foundation’s prize was Operation Smile. Other past winners include Fountain House and Clubhouse International, Aravind Eye Care System, and Tostan.
"Landesa has played a crucial role in one of the most essential elements for overcoming poverty and pursuing sustainable development — legal right to land, a fundamental basis for justice and prosperity," Gro Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and a jurist for the humanitarian prize, said in a statement.
The Hilton Foundation ranks 25th on The Chronicle’s annual survey of the wealthiest grant makers in the United States with $2.4 billion in assets and $109 million in grants paid in 2014.