Recently, land rights issues have been getting a lot of global attention. At the 2015 climate change conference in Paris, for example, indigenous peoples leaders and other activists have highlighted the importance of local land and resource rights to safeguard tropical forests on indigenous lands as an important element of global emission reduction efforts. And the United Nations’ (UN) new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in September, include two that focus on marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and three others—focused on ending poverty, achieving food security, and advancing women’s rights—that include land rights amongst their various targets.

This heightened awareness of land rights issues is heartening to observe, because as Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs noted in calling for a greater focus on land in the SDGs, “Land rights, both for individuals and for communities, are critical for achieving sustainable development.” 

New collaborations and information tools have recently been launched, including a Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights, which aims to double the area of secure community lands worldwide by 2020, and LandMark, a mapping platform that aims to “protect community lands by making them visible.” 

However, significant gaps remain in the fabric of funding and organizational support needed to help convert this growing awareness into more effective action and positive outcomes in the years ahead. We will need to address these gaps if we are to sustain the current momentum and opportunities.

The Growing Consensus

The growing consensus around the importance of land rights has taken shape over the past two decades. Scholars such as the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto and Nobel Prize in Economics laureate Elinor Ostrom helped frame land and property rights as central to economic development and environmental conservation during the 1990s. Meanwhile, in the political realm, indigenous peoples movements, which prioritize territorial rights and tenure reform as central to their human rights and cultural survival, have grown in strength and influence, as demonstrated by the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Local networks and advocates have also scored critical wins in the policy and political realm. Among the most notable of these: a 2013 constitutional court decision in Indonesia, which could result in indigenous communities’ rights being recognized over at least 40 million hectares of forest. Similarly, Kenya’s 2010 constitutional reforms provide for the legal recognition of community lands across the country.

New types of global networks and organizations are increasingly engaged as well, both on the world stage and with local efforts. For example, Avaaz, the web-based social justice network, recently ran an influential campaign in support of Maasai pastoralist in northern Tanzania, enlisting more than two million supporters to help counter a government proposal that would have seized community territories.

The Rights and Resources Initiative provides another example. This global network, created roughly a decade ago, has been advancing land and forest rights issues by supporting local organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and carrying out research on land rights and forest governance. One of the Initiative’s recent outputs estimates that as much as 65 percent of the world’s forests, rangelands, and mountains are held by communities through customary tenure systems, yet only 18 percent of that land area is actually owned or formally controlled by local communities. This sort of evidence has helped propel land rights issues into the center of global policy debates around food security, climate change, and biodiversity conservation.  

Necessary Shifts

Land rights issues are finally achieving the attention they deserve. And if we follow up our intentions with purposeful action, we should be able to achieve our global and local land rights ambitions in the years ahead. Namely, we need to:

1. Strengthen our civil society support models. Land rights reforms and recognition of local property and territories are politically contentious—government elites and private companies often want to access and control the same lands as local people. So locally rooted, committed civil society organizations and social entrepreneurs need to play a particularly critical role in this arena. Unfortunately, such organizations also face escalating pressures. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the number of indigenous and rural activists killed.  And dozens of countries have imposed suites of new restrictions on civil society organizations.

Even more than most civil society groups, land rights organizations need long-term, flexible, politically conscious sources of funding, and enabling international partnerships and networks.

2. Scale up appropriate funding. As yet, there is relatively little private philanthropic investment in land rights work. Exceptions include the Ford Foundation, which has a long and distinguished track record in regions such as eastern and southern Africa, and committed $85 million over five years in 2010 to strengthening community land and resource rights globally. The Omidyar Network has also made a notable investment in land rights, including to Seattle-based Landesa. Recent Skoll Award recipients include a number of national or regional leaders on land and resource rights issues, such as the Foundation for Ecological Security in India and the Amazon Conservation Team.

Beyond the private philanthropic realm, USAID and a number of bilateral European development agencies have made significant and long-running investments in land tenure reform. Nevertheless, these agencies often face challenges in working on issues with a long time horizon for reform, and in channeling appropriate funding to local organizations.

3. Capturing the public imagination. Land rights issues often involve intangible and subtle legal and institutional details and a very different social context from places like the United States, where most property rights arrangements have been stable for generations. As a result, it can be difficult to describe them effectively to the media and global audiences. Groups like Avaaz and GRAIN have demonstrated how to gain traction with the public, which has been pivotal in bringing land rights into the mainstream. What’s needed now is a way to turn that awareness of individual crises, such as “land grabbing” or local groups’ evictions into wider global awareness of the issue at large and commensurate support for the long road of land reforms that can prevent those episodic crises by providing sustainable, widespread solutions. 

Community land rights reform is a pressing issue for perhaps half of the world’s total land area, affecting at least 1.5 billion people. Global development objectives—ranging from climate change mitigation, to biodiversity conservation, to food security, to women’s rights—intersect around rights to own and control land. Improved patterns of investment and public support will be a critical component of meeting the demand for land rights in the years ahead.

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