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Why Community Land Rights Belong in the Sustainable Development Goals

A U.N. working group of 70 member states recently adopted a proposed set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015. Building on the MDGs, the “post-2015” SDGs will aim to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 while also supporting inclusive economic development and environmental sustainability. While the proposal puts forward 17 global goals and a plethora of targets for the international community to pursue between 2015 and 2030, it leaves out a critical component of improving rural livelihoods—securing community land rights.

Land Rights in the Proposed SDGs

There are some bright spots in the SDGs proposal when it comes to land rights. While several targets speak to land rights, one target is getting much of the attention from land rights advocates. Target 1.4 states that “by 2030, ensure that all men and women, particularly the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, including access to basic services, ownership, and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology, and financial services including microfinance." The recognition that men and women must have equal rights is important because in Africa and elsewhere, women generally do not have strong land rights. The proposed target also recognizes the need for access to natural resources on or below the land—a right that many landholders throughout the developing world lack under current legal systems.

While Target 1.4 calls for men and women to have equal rights, it does not recognize community land rights. Considerable land in Africa and in many countries in Latin America and Asia is held by communities based on a shared history, culture, language, or lineage. The land is held collectively by the community, not by individuals or families. In most cases, traditional leaders grant rights over some of this community land to households which may use—but not own or sell—that land for generations. Other community land is used and managed by all villagers as common property—such as forests, pastures, and bodies of water which rural households rely on for their livelihoods.

While most governments recognize customary tenure arrangements, few have established the strong legal protections needed to secure community land. Even when recognized by law, governments oftentimes fail to protect community land from encroachment or support villagers in securing their land. In other cases, the government only recognizes the part of community land that is “used and occupied”—such as homesteads and farmland—but not the common areas. This leaves communities vulnerable to losing their land and resources to mineral extractors, ranchers, illegal loggers, and other developers—undermining household economies and triggering conflicts.

We’ve Learned this Lesson Before

We know from experience the problems that stem from not recognizing community land and collective rights. In the past, when governments in Africa and elsewhere reformed their land laws and institutions, the emphasis was on securing tenure to increase agricultural production and promote food security. Pressed by their international development assistance partners, many investments focused on establishing a formal land tenure system modelled after the property rights system in the West—a uniform national system based on individual private property.

Given the predominance of customary tenure systems that emphasize collective rights over land in Africa, Latin America and Asia, efforts to institutionalize individual private property did not meet with much success. Villagers resisted new policies that called for adjudicating community land to individuals or households, and many times, these plans increased local poverty and misery. The literature is replete with accounts of failed efforts to implement individual private property systems. For example, when officials subdivided Maasai pastoral areas (group ranches) in Kajiado district, Kenya, into small individual holdings, the grazing pastures were lost. This undermined the traditional livestock economy of the Maasai pastoralists and resulted in an increase in cultivation. The individualization of land also resulted in the selling of land to outsiders and larger numbers of landless people.

The absence of community rights in Target 1.4 comes as a surprise, because many civil society organizations and other stakeholders made a strong case for community land rights to the U.N. working group on SDGs. For example, the Rights and Resources Initiative, Oxfam, and International Land Coalition released a policy brief arguing for the post-2015 agenda to recognize community land and indigenous territories—which more than 15 other land rights organizations endorsed.

Connecting Community Land Rights to Sustainable Development

Of course, the proposed SDGs—including Target 1.4—still have to be considered by the U.N. General Assembly as a whole, with a final agreement anticipated at a U.N. Summit meeting in September 2015.

That means there’s still time for all stakeholders to make the case for community land rights. Countries with laws that recognize and protect community land rights—such as Tanzania, Mozambique, Brazil, Mexico, and Guatemala—can tout the many benefits they’re seeing and champion the inclusion of collective rights in Target 1.4. NGOs and researchers in the land rights community can help governments recognize the implications of neglecting community land rights. And villagers—whose members have the most to lose—must share their perspective on collective rights and community land. Supportive governments and the international development assistance community must help amplify rural voices to reach their representatives and those involved in the intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. This time, let’s recognize the importance of secure community land rights to rural livelihoods and wellbeing.

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