Nature and Biodiversity

Could 2015 be a breakthrough year for community land rights?

Astrid Zweynert
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2015 is set to be a pivotal year for the global recognition of land and resource rights if momentum in protecting the world’s forests and their communities can be kept up, land rights experts and campaigners said on Wednesday.

Judges in Canada, Paraguay, Chile and Colombia among others took the lead in enshrining the rights of communities, and legislators in El Salvador passed community land laws in 2014, all big steps in ensuring human rights are respected, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) said in its annual review.

“Without these rights, you will get the resource curse,” RRI coordinator Andy White said at the report’s launch, referring to a well-documented phenomenon in which countries that trade their natural resources are plagued by corruption and stagnation rather than social and econonomic development.

“We need governments to work with communities and corporates to stop that from happening.”

Studies have shown that securing local land rights is essential in fighting climate change because local people protect forests – and the carbon they contain – when they have secure rights and government support.

Actions, not words

In another step to protect forests, corporations signed the Paris Declaration on Forests last year, pledging to halve the net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020 and to eliminate it by 2030.

These promises will lose credibility if they are not matched by actions to end corporate takeovers of indigenous lands, the RRI, a coalition of more than 150 organisations working to advance forest tenure, policy and market refoms, said.

Mina Susana Setra of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) in Indonesia, said trust was still a major issue in negotiating with corporations and governments, in particular as growing numbers of land rights campaigners are being threatened and killed.

“How can we sit at the same table and talk when our people on the ground face violence?” Setra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “This is still a big issue and a fundamental question that we need to ask businesses and governments.”

Setra said that in Indonesia, which has overtaken Brazil as the world’s largest deforester, new president Joko Widodo has endorsed a pro-commmunity land rights agenda drawn up by AMAN and has taken steps to stem illegal logging and forest clearing.

Experts at the launch agreed that the World Bank had a leading role to play, in particular as it is due to launch the first global forest carbon market in 2015.

“For centuries, governments have been handing out indigenous peoples’ forests to supply the next commodity boom – whether rubber, palm oil, cattle or soy,” said White.

“The carbon market is the next global commodity from tropical forests, and once again, there is a major risk that indigenous people are not recognised as owners of the forest.”

Progress in securing land rights has been slowest in sub-Saharan Africa, but there are positive signs, the RRI said.

Liberia has a progressive land rights policy that elevates customary rights to the same level as statutory rights, while Tanzania is strengthening women’s land rights and Uganda has announced plans to issue a million land titles to boost customary land ownership.

The reality on the ground is often different, though, said Silas Siakor of Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute.

“We need much more global solidarity and global legal instruments that we can rely on, so that we don’t have to rely on our own governments,” Siakor said.

Liberia’s government, which staked the country’s economic development on palm oil, is still giving land to corporations without much regard for community people’s land rights, he said.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Astrid Zweynert is an Editor at Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: An illegal logger cuts down a tree to be turned into planks for construction in a forest south of Sampit, in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province November 14, 2010. REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmad

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