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Long out of focus, land rights become centered in the climate change picture

Delegates to UNCCD COP15 put forth new approaches to securing land tenure

Women are among those who could benefit from a new land rights digital tool. Riaz Jahanpour, USAID
18 May 2022
David Henry
18 May 2022
David Henry

Land grabs and conflict over natural resources are increasing due to the impacts of global warming, food shortages triggered by war and disrupted supply chains during the pandemic – threats that make the importance of securing land rights greater than ever before. 

But achieving this objective is no easy task, given the innumerable cultural and regional contexts that come into play in each situation when determining people’s rights to land.

To put forth new approaches to this difficult issue, a two-part series of tenure-focused events was held at the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. The series was hosted by Berlin-based TMG Think Tank for Sustainability in partnership with the Global Landscapes Forum and others.

More than a dozen speakers took part, including representatives from UN organizations, NGOs, human-rights commissions as well as officials from African governments.

“The planet is not growing, but the demand for land is growing,” said Alexander Müller, managing director of TMG and moderator of the opening session.

“If you look at all the growing demand for land from urbanization, carbon sequestration and countries’ commitments to plant trees, and you understand that there is no land without people, then you also know that we have to secure the rights of people. All land is local, and therefore all human rights are local,” he said.

Accountability tool

In 2012, the Committee on World Food Security adopted the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT) to promote secure tenure rights to land, fisheries and forests. Since the guidelines are only voluntary, there has been limited uptake of their recommendations and a growing need to strengthen their implementation.

As a result, TMG has launched the Human Rights & Land Navigator, a new digital tool that helps users find a basis for taking legal action on land tenure. Developed with the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Malawi Human Rights Commission, the tool links binding human-rights obligations – for example, in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention – to specific aspects of land governance in the VGGT.

“Human rights are not voluntary commitments,” said Therese Arnesen of the UN Human Rights Office. “They are obligations that states have toward people. The human rights-based approach to the implementation of the VGGT is really putting people at the center of the action. This means listening to people in vulnerable situations: migrants, children, women and girls, Indigenous Peoples and local communities.”

Securing land tenure rights may promote landscape restoration. Laurentius Angga, CIFOR-ICRAF
Securing land tenure rights may promote landscape restoration. Laurentius Angga, CIFOR-ICRAF

Maria Ploug Peterson, senior advisor at the Danish Institute of Human Rights, demonstrated the tool’s capabilities, with options to filter searches according to rightsholder group, country or keyword linked to the VGGT and various human–rights documents. For example, a search under the term ‘eviction’ would take the user to sections of the VGGT on the right to housing as well as human-rights notes on the right to protection from forced eviction.

“We have to be much quicker to realize that the human rights agenda and the sustainable development agenda are the same,” said Miriam Medel Garcia, chief of external relations, policy and advocacy at UNCCD. “We probably had some time before, but now we don’t. All the experts and the data point us to 2030 as a breaking point, when the challenges we are facing as humanity won’t be reversible. So, I expect this tool and the conversations around land tenure in this convention will help us make policy headway immediately.”

Lack of control

Women are among the potential beneficiaries of the new tool, as they are routinely excluded from ownership structures, inheritance rights and male-led decision-making processes.

A lack of control over production not only reduces women to farmland laborers but also has a profound effect on nutrition at the household level since men usually plant cash crops while women prefer to cultivate a diverse array of produce, according to Violet Shivutse, the founder and coordinator of Shibuye Community Health Workers in Kenya.

“It’s about changing mindsets so that people understand that by planting nutritious food they are gaining more than by getting a quick return,” she said. “Secure tenure rights are not something threatening but something that ultimately benefits everybody.”

Food security is also tied with land rights protection. Joe Nkadaani, CIFOR
Food security is also tied with land rights protection. Joe Nkadaani, CIFOR

Degraded land

Land degradation, which can be mitigated or reversed through tenure rights, is accelerating due to climate change, population growth and rising demand for natural resources. About 24 billion tons of fertile land is lost every year. While the economic costs of desertification and land degradation are estimated at USD 490 billion per year, avoiding land degradation through sustainable land management can generate up to USD 1.4 trillion in economic benefits. 

In a separate panel discussion, government ministers from Benin, Kenya, Madagascar and Malawi outlined their efforts to align national plans for land degradation neutrality (LDN) with Decision 26 from COP14. This decision highlights the importance of land tenure within the framework of the UNCCD and the relevance of the VGGT to the convention’s implementation.

The four African countries found that local communities hold land tenure rights for extended periods of time, yet these rights are not yet officially recognized. Communities are also highly dependent on access to land and other natural resources in LDN priority areas. The enforcement of LDN measures must strengthen co-management mechanisms that address the livelihood needs of local communities, according to the panel participants.

“We have a policy that advocates for co-management, which gives communities the opportunity to own the resources,” said Teddie Kamoto of Malawi’s Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources. “They begin to believe it is important to restore these ecosystems because they will eventually benefit. It’s not people in offices who will restore these areas, it’s the communities. Let’s start listening to the people, to the communities themselves.”


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