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What role does securing forest and community land rights play in development?

The subject of land tenure rights is raised in many discussions about agricultural development and often within the broader development discourse. The growing demand for productive, agricultural land from all sectors only serves to heat up the debate. As the issues unravel a complex set of threads emerges, involving environmental conservation, governance, corruption, food security, economic growth, and climate change.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of rights: do people who have been living from land and forest resources have the right to this land over the person who holds the papers? There is a widespread belief that establishment of fair, equal and transparent land tenure systems are key to tackling structural inequality and ensuring economic growth. Yet, most of the land in the world belongs to the State and is often rented or sold with the people living on it.

As part of the “Forest, Landscapes & Food Security” Theme, SIANI and Focali together with Land Rights Research Initiative (LARRI) and Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) gathered experts in Gothenburg to discuss the topic and what needs to be done for more secure land tenure rights.

Legal recognition of rights that local and indigenous communities have to the land they have been living on for generations is referred to as a ‘land-rights transition’. According to the RRI research, presented by Jenny Springer, most of the rights to land in the world are customary, which means that indigenous people live on the land, but the government owns the land. RRI states there are positive changes in land rights recognition, but that these changes are unevenly distributed around the world with the lowest land right recognition rates in Africa.

Furthermore, in the recent years there has been a slow down in this transition process. According to RRI, it may have been due to the REDD+ implementation, even though it has been proven that community owned forests have the highest carbon sequestration potential and deforestation in community owned areas is low. A slow down in the recognition of land rights also coincides with the industrial concession expansion that is why, among other things, RRI recommends engaging private sector, corporations and investors in respecting community rights.

Engagement of the private sector with public sector reforms has been historically challenging for several reasons. It is stated that public, private sectors and civil society simply have different interests and it is problematic to reach a solution that satisfies all parties. The relations in this “triangle” are often associated with the lack of trust.

Indeed, according to Don Roberts of Nawitka Capital Advisors Ltd. “There is “good” and “bad” capital. The “good” capital is risk aversive and cares about reputation, while “bad” capital only cares about how to make money fast, and the “bad” capital is usually the first to come”. He further points out that “working through the Public-Private Partnerships model can be a way to attract the “good” capital. PPPs provide the opportunity to engage all the stakeholders and balance the interests and provide alternative business solutions which needed for cases when there is a need to engage local communities.”

However, in order for communities to fully participate in a PPP or any other endeavor that involves dealing with land issues, they have to know their rights to be capable of claiming them. Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, Executive Director of Tebtebba and UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples shared some experience from her long lasting work on the ground with community capacity development:

“Communities have to be able to use their traditional knowledge systems that have been proven to take the best care of ecosystem services and be at the same time, connected to the processes on the national and global level. At Tebtebba we developed the Indigenous Sustainable Self-determination approach which is based on the principles of human rights, ecosystem services, cultural acceptance and economic sufficiency.”

Margareta Nilsson from Sida added, “Community capacities can be strengthened by investing in supply chains, training of paralegals and leadership cultivation, but it is equally important to strengthen government capacities and to motivate governments to change”.

“Politicians are short-sighted and their goal is to get more votes, this is the issue that we have to address. Governments rarely comply with the international treaties because it is not in their interest and this is the stumbling block in the land rights tenure recognition process”, continued Vicky Tauli-Corpuz.

However, there are positive transitions among the governments. For instance, Indonesian government has recently expressed the will to respect community land rights, but that there is no mechanism to support this initiative. Indeed land rights systems vary from country to country and the best way to regulate community land rights does not have a universal outline.

The recently announced launch of the Land Rights Facility might become the missing facilitating agent in the process of land rights recognition. The Facility has been developed by RRI and its partners will provide technical and financial support for the land rights reforms. It is planned to pilot several small-scale projects in 2015 and be operating at full strength by 2016.

Another positive shift in the global land right recognition process is the recent endorsement of the Responsible Principles of Agricultural Investments by the Global Committee on Food Security (CFS). Although the principles are non-binding, it is the first time that governments, private sector and civil societies agreed on a set of general principles that should be taken into account while performing a land rights reform.

These two initiatives will shape a landscape for the land reforms. However, implementation of the rules might prove even more challenging than the creation of the rules themselves. So, the success of the process is highly dependent on the political will of the governments around the world.

Would like to know more about securing forest and community land rights? Watch the videos from the event!

Responsible agricultural investments in developing countries: how to make principles and guidelines effective?

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