Reduce bureaucracy for community, indigenous groups embroiled in land rights challenges, report urges

Panoramic of Loboyoc town, Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios, Peru. CIFOR/Marco Simola
12 July 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) – Formal land tenure claims — often stalled by costly legal disputes lasting up to 30 years – can only be properly implemented if they are backed by strong government support, according to a new report.

Honoring community and indigenous land tenure rights for more than 2.5 billion people worldwide whose livelihoods depend on collectively held land would help conserve forests, mitigate climate change, reduce environmental degradation and lead to sustainable development initiatives, said the authors of The Scramble for Land Rights: Reducing Inequity between Communities and Companies.

The paper launched Wednesday in Lima was jointly produced by scientists from World Resources Institute (WRI), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partners. It presents an analysis of data culled from countries where tensions over land rights are high, often due to overlapping rights.

As competition for land intensifies in tandem with global demand for food, fuel, minerals, fibers and wood products, and companies are increasing efforts to secure land, the benefits of community-level tenure security must not be overlooked, the report said.

While community groups spend years addressing legally mandated steps to formalize land rights, businesses often gain rights to extract resources from community lands within a month.

Researchers scrutinized data on 19 community land rights formalization processes in 15 countries, equally distributed across Africa, Asia and Latin America. They isolated five main factors hindering formalization, including burdensome and inaccessible community procedures, and regulatory and policy frameworks favoring investors over community formalization procedures.

In Latin America, where the non-governmental organization Global Witness reports almost 200 people were killed in 2017 due to related conflicts, titling of indigenous lands is a a drawn out, expensive – and sometimes dangerous – process.

In comparison, companies following procedures for land access also face bureaucratic obstacles, but they are in a much better position to address them, the report states. Companies have more funding, can find legal loopholes and can more easily go around the law to move the process along.

This imbalance in the playing field for communities and companies also leads to conflict, said Anne Larson, principal scientist in Lima with CIFOR.

“In Peru, even land titles are not sufficient to guarantee control over the territory, as pressure exists over strategic extractive and agroindustry resources in the Amazon,” she said.

“Boundary problems and overlaps with production forests and the separate classification of agricultural land, which can be titled, and forest land, which cannot, are two of the main sources of tensions and conflicts currently. Mechanisms to address conflict should be central in the titling process.”

More than half of land worldwide across all continents except Antarctica is claimed by local communities, including indigenous, customary peoples and other forest-dependent communities, but national laws recognize only 10 percent of land as belonging to communities, and another 8 percent is identified by governments for community use. As a result, a large portion of community land is not registered, titled or formally recognized.

PERUVIAN CHALLENGE

Since 1974, more than 1,300 native indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon have obtained title to about 12 million hectares of land, including 17 percent of the country’s forests.

“Despite this important progress, the titling process is still plagued by logistical difficulties; it can be long, complicated and costly,” said Iliana Monterroso, the CIFOR post-doctoral student who carried out the Peru portion of the study.

Law determines that communities in Peru need to follow at least 20 different steps to be titled and granted rights over both land and forests.

“In practice, our research demonstrates that these communities must follow 35 different steps, taking as long as 20 years to complete their formalization procedures,” Larson added. “And these 35 steps refer only to communities that do not encounter problems such as overlaps in the process. These kinds of problems require additional procedures and can delay the process indefinitely.”

Compounding the problem further, the non-governmental organization Instituto del Bien Comun estimates that some 80 percent of these titled native communities are not properly registered. This is in part due to overlaps, which are only resolved in the final stage after the title is issued.

Many communities are still waiting for their formalization processes to be resolved while more than 600 communities have not even started the process, “Additionally, some that are currently registered now have to redo at least part of the process because they were conducted without geo-referenced maps before the technology was available,” said Larson.

Despite recent efforts by the Peruvian government to standardize procedures and organize the institutional framework for the recognition and formalization of indigenous communities, challenges remain. The problem of borders and overlapping land rights represents the most common reason for delays in formalization, conflict and insecurity, Monterroso said.

Research indicates that more than 40 percent of the Peruvian Amazon, some 16 million hectares, lies in oil or gas concessions, and at least half of that area overlaps titled communities and reserves for indigenous people in isolation.

Additionally, more than 9 million hectares of land set aside as areas suitable for commercial forestry concessions — more than 50 percent of the area classified as production forests — also overlap indigenous communities, according to Peru’s National Forest Service.

“In 2014, a landmark case illustrated the extent of this problem, when illegal loggers were accused of murdering four Asháninka leaders from the Saweto community in Ucayali,” Larson said. “The community had first petitioned for recognition and titling in 2003. The Ucayali state government suspended the titling process for over 11 years, as a portion of the community area had been classified as production forest.”

Almost a dozen titling programs, mostly implemented with donor funding, are underway for collective lands in the Amazon, representing new opportunities to recognize rights to land and forests to indigenous communities in the Amazon.Three actions are urgently needed, according to the researchers:

  • Government needs to recognize that this is a long-term, national problem that won’t be resolved by donor projects. It must institutionalize native communities’ regularization in the political agenda, assigning resources for recognition, titling, registration of these rights and promoting incentives to ensure government institutions are able to keep updated information on existing land rights in their regions. This includes effective mechanisms for managing and transforming conflict.
  • Since regional governments are responsible for the bulk of titling procedures, they need support in terms of human and financial resources and capacities.
  • Indigenous communities and their organizations and federations need support to defend their property rights, manage forests and natural resources and enhance their food security, based on their own agendas and priorities.