Details key in efforts to formalize indigenous peoples’ land rights, delegates say

Gabrielle Lipton
25 February 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — One-third of the world’s population has customary rights to more than 50 percent of the world’s land, yet they legally own just 10 percent.

This enormous gap between indigenous peoples’ rightful ownership to their traditional lands and their formal land rights, was recently addressed by representatives of the international community attending “Opportunities and lessons learned to enhance and accelerate recognition of community land rights” at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany.

The international community is positioned better now than ever before to tackle this issue and related human rights concerns, delegates said.

New commitments embedded in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, at the 2017 U.N. climate talks in Bonn and through the GLF have pledged long-term support to indigenous communities. Additionally, the international land and forest Tenure Facility funds projects of up to $2 million to help indigenous communities secure land rights.

In this discussion, indigenous leaders and experts shared their views on the specific issues they hope to see these large-scale efforts address.

TAKING INITIATIVE

Although major global initiatives such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) and forest landscape restoration (FLR) were set up to benefit communities, some have not been as effective as intended, adding tension to the relationship between environmental conservation and local livelihoods, delegates said.

These programs are developed at a high level and are innately top-down in their approach to landscape issues, so the people affected on the ground do not always have the power to protect their needs, said Steven Lawry, director of equity, gender, and tenure for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR),

“The models assume that people have [land] rights,” Lawry said. “But the rights-holder in most contexts is the government. Then the question becomes about what the government is going to do in respect to sharing benefits, and because of high overhead costs, not much is left to transfer to communities.”

To counter this, the social and birth land rights traditionally upheld in indigenous communities need to be formalized in statutory recognition and tenure.

Otherwise, landscapes are changed according to the government’s priorities rather than the priorities of local inhabitants, said Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti, a researcher at CIFOR.

Social safeguards should be embedded into environmental initiatives to better respect traditional land rights.

“If REDD+ is without rights, you will lose out on any expected outcomes because you will create conflict with communities,” said Daniel Ole Sapit, former executive director of Indigenous Peoples Hub Africa.

POLICY PRESSURES

“If there’s a political will, there’s a way,” was a phrase repeatedly used to refer to the need for policy changes on land rights issues.

Joan Carling, co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development, said that in Asia, gaps in land rights are often affected by conflicts in national policies. In the same landscape, different policies will promote conservation, mining, and agribusiness. Add in the private sector proposing investment for profitable development projects, and respecting unofficial, local land rights becomes a difficult choice for a politician to make.

To shield against this situation, processes must be put in place for demarcation and providing land titles to indigenous communities, she said.

Carling’s home country of the Philippines has successfully instituted a law recognizing land rights; Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo also recognize indigenous peoples in their constitutions, Sapit said.

Since 2014, 39 new laws and regulatory frameworks in 30 countries have addressed the issue in some form or fashion as well, he said.

COLLECTIVE CONCERNS

Discussion also focused on how formalizing land rights processes should continue to be a priority for governments, who must detail policies correctly specifying to whom land rights are given, whether individuals, families, communities or collective groups of people.

Identifying the appropriate choice is context-specific. In areas where landscapes are traditionally managed collectively – Bolivia, Rwanda, and Uganda are examples – forest certification schemes that focused on individuals led to the degradation and undermining of local communities.

In India, the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) was set in place in part to reverse previous injustices to forest-dwelling communities, as past legislature did not reflect the country’s common household-based management practices.

Land rights policies need also to recognize the roles of women, Carling said. Despite women often being the land-managers in indigenous communities, land titles are often put in the names of men, leaving wives powerless in their household decision-making.

“In India, women spoke up that the FRA put land in men’s names,” said Carling. “But [men] weren’t the ones working on the land and often gave into temptation to sell because they could go work somewhere else. Women had nowhere to go. Titles should go in name of both men and women, so decisions can then be jointly made.”

Achieving proper policies inherently requires the inclusion of indigenous peoples’ voices in policymaking processes. As demonstrated by the complications surrounding India’s FRA, an up-front investment of time and effort on the part of policymakers can lead to less work down the road – as well as better landscapes.

“If you invest in local people’s processes and they have rights, they will drive restoration,” White said.