By Rina Chandran
KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gyalgen Lama was a third-generation tenant farmer in Nepal's Sindhupalchok district, eking out a living from growing millet on a small piece of land that he could only dream of owning.
That is until a land rights group helped to make his dream a reality.
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While Nepal's Land Act of 1964 gave tenant farmers the right to own land and put a ceiling on landholdings, most agricultural land is in the hands of a few owners. Millions of lower-caste Dalit laborers and tenant farmers remain landless.
"I had to fight hard to get the land that we have worked on for so long," Lama told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Only if you have land in your name do you have status and power, and recognition in the society," said Lama.
Landlessness and an abusive tenancy system helped fuel years of conflict in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world.
It is estimated that 5 percent of the Himalayan nation's population owns more than 37 percent of the land. About a third are landless, with millions classified as semi-landless because their holdings are so small, rights group ActionAid Nepal says.
The end of 10 years of civil war in 2006 and the abolition of a 239-year-old feudal monarchy two years later raised hopes of reform. But laws guaranteeing ownership have been hamstrung by an entrenched social hierarchy, a rigid caste system and lack of political will, campaigners say.
The new constitution, approved last year, gives land ownership rights to landless Dalits who are largely unaware of their rights and face daunting challenges in asserting their claims, activists say.
"These are poor, illiterate people who have been ruled by land owners for generations," said Jagat Basnet at rights group Community Self-Reliance Centre (CSRC) in Kathmandu.
"They have been tilling the land for generations, yet they have no security, no status, no recognition. It is a moral, ethical and humanitarian issue," he said.
Tenant farmers must have receipts of grains or payments made to the landlord, or have their names on land certificates before they file a case to claim a part of the land they work on.
They often do not have these documents, and may lack the resources or the knowledge to take on landlords, Basnet said.
CSRC and others have been organizing landless tenant farmers into community groups and helping with documentation. The process can take years with powerful landlords mounting obstacles every step of the way, Basnet said.
Activists have long called for a land reform commission to address the law's shortcomings and hasten the reforms process.
Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, who was sworn in earlier this month, has vowed to implement the 2015 constitution.
"The Land Reform Ministry is making efforts to prepare necessary laws and regulations in this connection," said Nagendra Jha, a spokesman for the ministry.
"I think the new government will form the commission."
Meanwhile, land rights activists are also pushing for equal rights for women, who own less than a fifth of the land. The new constitution guarantees equal property rights.
"Power respects power: the greater the mobilization, the better we can negotiate, and put pressure on the landlords," Basnet said.
"For rural women especially, who have no other asset, it's very important they know they can co-own the land," he said.
Last year's twin earthquakes highlighted the urgent need to secure land ownership, Basnet said.
Some 70 kms (45 miles) northeast of the capital Kathmandu, Sindhupalchok - home to one of the biggest land movements in the late 1970s - was badly hit by the disaster with most homes damaged or destroyed.
Lama, who was able to secure his plot of land with CSRC's help, added his wife's name to the land deed.
"We had no authority, no rights, but now we have something to call our own," said Sarita, his wife.
"It is something we can pass on to our children."
(Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu; Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)