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Land and property rights are key to myriad development goals, from hunger to women's economic empowerment. So why are they so hard to obtain?
“Let us wake up, humankind…Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits.”
These were the influential words of the Honduran indigenous land rights activist, Berta Caceres. She won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her role in organizing an opposition movement that led a major company to abandon building a dam on the indigenous-protected Rio Gualcarque in Honduras. Less than a year later, she was assassinated at home. Tragically, Berta Caceres was one of many land rights and environmental activists murdered in recent years.
Berta Caceres’ death comes at pivotal time in history. The year 2016 marks the beginning of a new era for land rights and environmental activism after a global consensus on sustainable development was reached last year .
Secure land rights - meaning enforceable land rights that are recognized by states and others, and protected in case of challenges - are a key ingredient to achieve the objectives set by these agreements. However, as demonstrated by the brutal killings of Berta Caceres and other activists around the world, the push for secure land rights continues to face an uphill battle.
Here are four reasons why secure land rights are so critical yet so difficult to obtain:
1. Securing land rights combats climate change, but the world’s largest emitters aren’t playing ball. When indigenous and local communities have secure rights to forests, both the deforestation rates and the carbon emissions in those forests can be significantly reduced. The 2015 Paris Agreement sets a worldwide agenda for limiting the rise in global temperature to no more than 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, only 21 of the 188 countries that submitted climate action plans to implement the Paris Agreement made commitments to secure land rights as a climate mitigation strategy. Many countries with high deforestation rates, such as Brazil and Indonesia, have not made such commitments.
2. Securing land rights fights hunger, but companies are grabbing land in countries where hunger levels are high and land rights are insecure. Access to food is a serious and growing problem as resources become scarce, demand for food increases, and food waste remains high. With secure rights and access to land, rural farmers can grow crops, graze livestock, and otherwise increase household food production. However, in response to rising food prices in 2008, companies began buying up millions of hectares of agricultural land in developing countries to maintain long-term food supplies.
According to the 2012 Global Hunger Index, the majority of these land grabs occurred in countries where hunger levels are “alarming" or “serious” and property rights to land are limited or contested. Consequently, local farmers in these countries face difficulties accessing land to grow food and fill stomachs.
3. Securing land rights eradicates poverty, yet governments are failing to secure land rights for the poor and vulnerable. A global study of 108 countries found that stronger property rights were associated with an average eight point rise in annual growth of per capita income. Nevertheless, it is estimated that at least 1 billion poor people currently lack secure rights to land. Moreover, research shows that the world’s indigenous and local communities only have secure rights to a small fraction of the lands upon which they live and depend. For these populations, land not only provides a home and a way of life, but also an income-generating asset. Unless their land rights are respected and protected, these populations may fail to overcome the poverty trap.
4. Securing women’s land rights promotes gender equality, yet laws and customs undermine the ability of women to own and access land.The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (the VGGTs) - a set of land governance “best practices” endorsed by UN Committee on World Food Security in 2012- call for governments to ensure women and girls have equal access to land. Research shows that women with secure land rights earn more income, are better able to feed their children, and are also less likely to experience domestic violence. However, in more than half of all countries, laws or customs hinder women’s rights to own and access land. Unless reformed, these laws and customs will continue to undermine women’s empowerment, putting them at risk of hunger, poverty, and domestic violence.
LOOKING AHEAD AT THE PUSH FOR SECURE LAND RIGHTS
While the push for secure land rights faces immense challenges, there are reasons to be hopeful. This past year saw the launch of a new campaigns and initiatives like the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights, which aims at doubling the amount of land legally recognized as owned and controlled by indigenous and local communities by 2020, and LandMark, a mapping platform aimed at protecting indigenous and community lands by making them visible.
Furthermore, new multi-stakeholder coalitions, such as the Interlaken Group and the Global Donor Working Group on Land, show signs that companies and donors are making commitments to respect and protect land rights.
Through these efforts, the land rights movement is taking flight. But for its destination to be reached, governments and companies must take active measures to ensure the rights of poor and vulnerable groups are respected and protected. With enough galvanized action, grassroots advocacy, international support, and public concern, secure land rights may finally be realized, bringing us closer to a world without environmental degradation, hunger, poverty, and discrimination.
Nick Tagliarino is a lawyer, Research Analyst at World Resources Institute, and PhD Candidate at the University of Groningen. He conducts research on expropriation, compensation, and re-settlement to develop recommendations for strengthening the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
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