In the climate and development arenas, the most current alarm being sounded is for rights –securing the land rights and freedoms of Indigenous peoples, local communities and the marginalized members therein. How can these custodians of a quarter of the world’s terrestrial surface be expected to care for their traditional lands if the lands don’t, in fact, belong to them? Or, worse, if they’re criminalized and endangered for doing so?
This weekend on 22–23 June at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany, representatives, leaders, thinkers and practitioners from governments, organizations, science and Indigenous groups will meet to define a new ‘gold standard’ for rights. The hope is that if a constitution for a world with solid, sustainable rights for all is written, then such a vision can be achieved.
Ahead of these discussions, Landscape News spoke with Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) director for strategic analysis and global engagement Alain Frechette – who will be moderating the process – on what such a gold standard for rights looks like and why now is the most opportune time for its creation.
Why have you chosen to focus your work so heavily on rights? Was there a moment when you realized the importance of this issue, or did it arise slowly over time?
As a forester and a development practitioner, I’ve worked on projects across the world. Invariably, rights always came back as being the fulcrum of whether or not projects work. What influenced me most was the realization that rights – the ability of people to make basic decisions about their needs, the use of their lands, their ambitions and their hopes or aspirations – invariably determined social-ecological outcomes, including economic security, wellbeing and livelihoods.
And like democracy itself, rights can never be taken for granted, but must be constantly upheld, defended, supported and rendered applicable in everyday lives of the people we are trying to help – and in our own lives.
Have you ever been with a community at the time when their rights to the land they had traditionally been holding were formally recognized?
I haven’t been privileged in that way to be there in the very moment when these rights are being recognized. But what’s important to understand is that recognition is not an instant lottery win. It’s not that because you have rights are written on a piece of paper that suddenly things change. All rights require time for their recognition. There are a lot of normative constraints to get rights recognized, applied, and politically and socially upheld. And so, it is the implementation of those rights over time that allows communities to flourish and gain benefits from those rights. One needs only to think of our own political systems where rights of women took decades to unfold.
I’ve been in communities that have benefitted from long-term rights, and it’s clear that they are able to effectively invest in their lands and resources and gain from those. Even those that traditionally have lesser rights – women for instance, youth – are able to use them as well. All those things require time. Gaining rights is just the first step.
Have there been any times in your work where you’ve seen a community really suffering due to lack of rights?
Most of my work is with communities that have weak or absent rights, communities where there is an intuitive recognition that freedoms and rights do not exist. The most visible feature is the disarmament, the sense that there is nothing that a community can do to ensure their work, their lands, their resources will be there for their children and their children’s children. Making decisions that impact others over time is very hard when your rights are not recognized. This gives reason to some to not invest in the maintenance of their own lands and resources, and it creates all sorts of tensions and social conflicts. Without rights, there are no sustainable lands.
How much do local communities generally know about what rights they do, don’t and should have? How can we make sure communities have proper knowledge around this?
There’s an intrinsic understanding of rights. Most communities and people have a basic understanding of what their rights are. What we know from our own work is that many do not know the legalistic language and legal instruments – sometimes binding, sometimes non-binding – that their governments have signed onto. Communities don’t know they have rights and entitlements under these legal instruments and can call upon governments to exercise those. Gaining basic recognition at that level is usually quick, and it needs to be done.
Why is now the right moment for a gold standard on rights?
If you look just 10 years ago, community rights were not much part of the global narrative, the global development narrative, and certainly not part of climate and biodiversity discussions. The issue of land rights more or less developed within the last decade. Now there is growing movement within the protected area arena, within climate discussions and within development more generally that local communities and Indigenous peoples have inherent rights to land and resources.
And then combined with this, we’re now at a critical moment in human history where we have a timeline, more or less a decade, to get our act together and save this world. Climate scientists say we have until 2030 to meet ambitions to limit warming, the Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 conservation agenda will be developed next year and the Sustainable Development Goals also coming to a close by 2030. All of this points to a tremendous opportunity to leverage the recognition of rights as a tool for achieving all of those goals and ensure that the communities that customarily manage so many of world’s landscapes can do so.
Ideally, what will this gold standard look like?
We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. The basic principles of gold standards already exist, such as free, prior and informed consent. Application of these principles is what is often lacking. What we’re calling for are high-level statements that can spur a race to the top. We want these to be ambitious and yet limited in number and succinct in scope and focus, and that they are not minimum standards for safeguards but high-level standards that can promote the best of what we all have to offer in terms of humans and society. We want to see all governments, institutions and organizations try and out-do each other in trying to achieve human potential and best of what we can accomplish.
If the standard is not binding in any way, how can a gold standard be adopted and implemented at scale? Is such competition as you just described enough?
We hope that this race to the top will in large part be helpful in directing that. But one needs to realize that rights do not exist in a vacuum. All organizations are subject to the gaze of observers such as us and other NGOs operating in the world that hold large multi-lateral and international organizations accountable for their investments. It’s peer-level pressure, system-level pressure that will support and advance the gold standard. Essentially, that’s what we’re hoping.
What role to brands and businesses play in adopting the gold standard and also promoting it to their consumers?
The primary target of this initiative for the time being is the international community, and development institutions primarily. The next step will be engaging the private sector and governments to ensure rights are upheld. So, our main focus at the moment is that. But, there is an increasing number or certification schemes and labels that allow communities to ensure that investors recognize and uphold their rights, such as the Forest Stewardship Council using its label to ensure rights are part of investments. If we can get development actors to endorse and abide by the principles of rights, we’re hoping that these will then infiltrate the private sector agenda.
Whether it’s with their wallet, their voice or their work, what can people with rights do to help those without?
We are seeing across the world that rights can never be taken for granted. We’re seeing the rollback of rights in many jurisdictions at the moment – Colombia, Brazil, India, the Philippines, even in the U.S. and Europe. We see an increasing rise in populism and nationalist governments that are even threatening places where rights were well recognized. Democracy is a constant struggle and delicate balance that requires all of us as citizens to uphold the principles and values that underpin our rights and the rights of others.
We need to constantly ask ourselves whether the projects we’re engaged in will give people the rights and authority to sustain their engagement and hold government and private sector actors accountable.
With our wallets, we must recognize that buying is always voting. The beauty of our interconnected world is that everything we do impacts others. We are often guilty of letting cost factors influence our decisions, tending to forget that buying cheap clothes or products has impacts elsewhere. Driving this message is a struggle we all know. So, we all have responsibility in informing each other of the consequences of our actions and purchases, and how those should be used to positively influence the recognition of the rights of others.
What are your thoughts on governments legally giving rights to nature?
I think that’s a wonderful principle. The challenge is always with implementation, right? As with human rights, gaining legal recognition on paper is one step; ensuring those rights are implement and abided by is another huge leap. Indigenous peoples have an intuitive understanding that the Earth has rights and are principle advocates and supporters of those principles. How do we ensure that governments actually apply them? Ideally if all governments would apply those principles, maybe climate change would not be such a huge ordeal to deal with.
What is your personal definition of ‘rights’? Which rights are the most valuable to you?
I very much follow what Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum call “capabilities as freedoms.” It’s the basic recognition that all humans have equal worth and dignity and are free and capable of exercising those rights and can do so over time. Without the freedom to express oneself, and without long-term perspective, there can’t be sustainability.
And one of most fundamental rights is the rights of women. If there’s only one thing we can do, securing the rights of women will trickle down and secure rights of everyone else. They are often the most vulnerable and disenfranchised institutionally in all realms. Their rights to everything from basic education to protection against violence and criminalization must be addressed – and that is more or less an insurance that everybody else will have equal rights and benefits too.