Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Paris Agreement goals impossible without decisive action to protect forests rights

Monday, 16 May 2016 00:00 GMT

A Munduruku Indian child is pictured at the Planalto Palace, where a meeting with Minister of the General Secretariat of the Presidency of Brazil Gilberto Carvalho was being held with other Munduruku Indians, in Brasilia, June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When indigenous rights are recognised and enforced, communities successfully manage their forests - and make crucial contributions to climate change mitigation.

For indigenous and forest communities, insecurity of land rights perpetuates poverty, inequality and environmental degradation.

Strengthening land rights for those communities is essential but will also be critical to the fight against climate change.

Last year, major new global frameworks critical to sustainable development were endorsed by the international community. They included the 2030 Agenda and the associated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

As the international community moves to implement these ambitious frameworks, there is the potential for a new era of co-operation around eradicating poverty, reducing disaster risk, spurring green growth, and significantly reducing inequalities.

However it will be impossible to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change without decisive action to protect the world’s forests. A growing body of evidence shows that when indigenous and community rights are recognised and enforced, communities successfully protect and manage their forests, making crucial contributions to climate change mitigation.

If we are serious about fighting climate change, then we must be serious about upholding the rights of the indigenous communities which live in and protect the world’s forests.

As with many development challenges, it is the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who face the greatest risks from having insecure land rights.

In some countries, indigenous peoples and forest communities face threats to their lives as they strive to protect their ancestral lands from logging, mining, and agricultural interests in the face of insecure or weakly enforced land rights. On average in 2014, one environmental defender was killed every week, and almost half of those were indigenous people defending their ancestral lands from outside interests.

Women are also adversely affected by not having secure land and tenure rights. Their rights may be denied by discriminatory laws and practices, leaving them dependent on men for basic economic survival and vulnerable to violence, poverty, and food insecurity.

Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current Administrator of the United Nations Development Program, speaks during an interview in New York April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

These problems are particularly acute for rural women. Large-scale land acquisitions, land degradation including desertification and biofuel production are reducing the availability of fertile land for farming as well as also increasing competition for the marginal lands more likely to be allocated to women farmers.

These issues intersect with other inequalities, from poverty, illiteracy, poorer health, and low levels of education. All these may impact on women’s ability to participate in decision making and governance processes.

In rural Latin America, only 25% of land holdings are owned by women. This drops to 15% in Sub-Saharan Africa, and to under 5% in Western Asia and North Africa.

Failure to address tenure security for women comes at a high price for development. Granting land rights to women can raise farm production by twenty to thirty per cent in developing countries, and result in significant gains for countries’ food security and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

UNDP’s 50 years' experience of empowering women and working with indigenous and local communities have convinced us that land rights across these groups are essential if the ambitious global goals set by world leaders are to be achieved.

Fortunately, new opportunities to increase the land and resources owned and managed by indigenous peoples and forest communities are emerging.

A Munduruku Indian woman warrior carries a monkey on her head while on a search for illegal gold mines and miners in their territory, near the Kadiriri river, a tributary of the Tapajos and Amazon rivers in western Para state January 25, 2014. REUTERS/Lunae Parracho

Technologies for mapping and land demarcation are improving and becoming more accessible. International and national human rights frameworks are being expanded and implemented. A growing body of evidence highlights the tangible environmental, social, and economic benefits of indigenous and community ownership of land, forests and resources.

Despite the legal, social, and cultural barriers to advancing land rights for women, the path forward to advancing their rights to secure land tenure is also clear.

Gender-sensitive laws and regulations are needed: land laws which support women’s rights must not be undermined by family and inheritance laws; awareness of women's legal rights must be raised and; those rights must be upheld.

As the strongest resistance to women’s land rights can often be found at the community level, local leaders must be engaged in embracing change.

Securing the rights of indigenous and forest communities and of women to land and natural resources will be an important step towards achieving sustainable development for all. 

Helen Clark is the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand

For more on land and property rights visit our new website place.trust.org