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Blog Post
15 December 2017
Author: Lasse Krantz

What happened in Stockholm during the “land rights autumn?”

Photo by Dietmar Temps via Flickr.

A boy from the Ethiopian Tribe Mursi.

In October 2017 Stockholm hosted a series of international events dedicated to the issue of land and resource rights. On October 3, Swedish Development Agency, Sida organised a “Development Talk” on the theme: Land rights – a prerequisite for combating climate change and advancing peace and gender equality, followed by an in-depth session in the afternoon on Securing Community Land and Resource Rights in Practice. You can watch video from both of the events here.

On October 4-5, Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), together with SIANI and other partners, organised the 3rd International Conference on Community Land and Resource Rights at Vår Gård Conference Center, just outside of Stockholm. The event attracted more than 300 participants from all over the world under the motto Reducing Inequality in a Turbulent World.

In this blog I will briefly tell about the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility and describe what I found particularly interesting during this “week of land rights” in Stockholm.

The International Land and Forest Tenure Facility: How will it work?

The International Land and Forest Tenure Facility was launched on the 3rd of October at the Swedish Development Agency, Sida. The Tenure Facility (for short) is a new international mechanism created to support recognition of land rights of communities around the world, and Sida is one of the facility’s donors. Initiated by RRI from an interim office in Washington DC with activities on a pilot-basis a couple of years ago, the initiative has now found a new home in Stockholm.

Tenure Facility is a unique institution. Firstly, it is the only international, multi-stakeholder, institution exclusively focused on securing collective land and forest rights for indigenous peoples and local communities. Secondly, funding support is channeled directly to selected local organizations with a minimum of bureaucracy. At the same time, the local partners are encouraged to collaborate with associated government agencies on the implementation of activities. Thirdly, the Tenure Facility will give a priority to activities with strategic significance which can catalyze the scaling-up of models and procedures for securing the land and forest rights of local people at the national level.

The Tenure Facility has already piloted this approach in several countries, of which those in Mali, Indonesia and Peru were presented at the Sida meeting in Stockholm. More details on all the pilot-projects can be found at the Tenure Facility’s website

One question that came up during the discussion was why the Tenure Facility has chosen to focus so much on collective property rights to land and forests. There are several reasons for this. For a start, most tropical forests are traditionally held as commons by local people and, therefore, it is logical to secure their land rights as collective properties. In addition, for historical and socio-cultural reasons indigenous peoples often wish to maintain control over their land and forest areas as integral territories. However, formalising communal customary tenure systems as collective property might be problematic in some places, like Sub-Saharan Africa, because of the internal differentiation that often characterise customary tenure regimes there. As recent research has shown, some people might risk being left out when these regimes are formalised. This is especially true for women and immigrants. It will be interesting to see how the Tenure Facility will deal with these kind of issues.

Photo by Caio Mota/ International Rivers via Flickr.

On July 16th, 2017 representatives of the indigenous Munduruku nation occupied the main work camp of the São Manoel hydroelectric dam on the Teles Pires River in the Brazilian Amazon, paralyzing the project. Led by Munduruku women warriors, the occupiers presented a series of demands to dam developers and Brazilian government authorities, including the right to consultation, land titling, and respect for their cultural and spiritual sites.

Meaning business in community land rights

The 2-day International Conference at Vår Gård contained several thematic sessions:  how securing land rights is central to peace and prosperity, rural and indigenous women’s rights and leadership role in collective lands, strategies and mechanisms to scale-up implementation from local to national level as well as connecting and leveraging international support structures to advance indigenous and community land rights.

The most interesting session for me was “Emerging Experiences of Leading Companies and Investors to Support the Recognition of Community Land Rights”, organized by the Interlaken Group, an informal network of influential leaders from companies, investors, civil society,  governments and international organizations with the purpose to expand and leverage private sector action to secure community land rights. The Group was founded in 2013 during the first international conference on land rights in Interlaken, Switzerland, hence its name.

Since then the Interlaken Group has grown considerably and today they include some of the world’s largest producers of food, palm-oil, sugar, timber and wood products. In addition to regularly meetings the Group has jointly worked on the development, adoption and dissemination of ways to accelerate private sector learning on responsible land rights practices. For instance, in 2015 it published “Respecting Land and Forest Rights: A Guide for Companies”, followed in 2017 by “Land Legacy Issues: Guidance on Corporate Responsibility”. These and other publications as well as more general information about the Group can be found at their website.

In the session with leading companies and investors, staff members and consultants working for Nestlé, Sime Darby and Illovo Africa shared their experiences of dealing with land tenure issues in their business operations on the ground. It became clear that many large international companies today recognize the importance of respecting the rights local populations have to land and natural resources. Partly this is because otherwise their business reputation might suffer damages.  Also, if the companies don’t engage they might get dragged into all sorts of conflicts with the local population, jeopardizing their investments. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the local land tenure situation before investment decisions are made.

One of the difficulties for business in this context is that companies often lack sufficient knowledge about the local situation and therefore don’t know who to talk to when it comes to consultations with affected communities. They are therefore often left in the hands of local authorities and traditional leaders, who don’t always work in the interests of local communities.

Another problem is that governments often lack resources or political will to ensure the implementation of land tenure legislation, even when such already exists. One thing companies can do in such cases is to put pressure on the government by explaining that can refrain from investments if the local tenure situation is uncertain.  Though, there is obviously a limit for how far businesses are willing to go with this tactic. Lastly, not all companies follow the international principles for responsible investments, VGGTs, creating a situation of unfair competition for those who do.

These were some of the more problematic issues mentioned by business representatives, particularly when it comes to large-scale land-based investments. Interestingly, they agreed that ideally it would be preferable if instead of acquiring land as long-term concessions from the state, companies could lease it directly from the communities and at a mutually agreed price. In that way, communities would not loose ownership of the land. Also, this way communities could get income from land which they won’t be using for subsistence farming in the foreseeable future.

However, this would only be possible if the community has the capacity to negotiate directly with companies. It also requires some kind of long-term systematic land-use planning of the community’s total area in order to determine if and where land might be available for such leasing arrangements. Lastly, and perhaps the most fundamental of all, this model is only possible if governments are prepared to grant communities full ownership rights to their land, something that is not the case in most of the countries with land rights issues today.

This blog is written by Lasse Krantz, guest-researcher and project leader of the Land Rights Research Initiative at Gothenburg University. He has long experience of working with land tenure issues from development cooperation, policy and research. 

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