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3 Ways to Tackle the Global Problem of Insecure Land Rights

A critical challenge facing the world today is how to secure land and natural resource rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. Land and its resources lie at the heart of life for more than 2 billion rural people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, providing food, income and jobs, and forming the basis of security, status, social identity and political relations.

When land rights are weak or insecure, indigenous peoples and communities can lose access to critical resources, or lose their land entirely, which in turn threatens livelihoods, triggers conflicts and exacerbates climate change. These threats grow as more governments and investors seek to acquire land.

Next week, the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty brings together government officials, property rights experts, advocates and investors to discuss new developments and challenges surrounding land governance and land rights.

Three fundamental goals must be achieved:

1) Governments Recognize and Protect Community Land Rights

Many governments acknowledge customary land rights, but few have the strong legal protections needed to secure them. In Cameroon and other countries, the law recognizes customary land that is occupied and used, but rarely the forests, pastures and wetlands communities manage as common property. These lands are critical to local livelihoods, but are often viewed by governments as vacant, idle and available for development. In Sri Lanka, Zambia and elsewhere, the law gives the executive branch of government broad discretion – with little oversight - to establish a justification for the compulsory acquisition of land.

Even when land rights are legally recognized, few governments include community rights to all the natural resources associated with their land, or effectively protect those rights. National legal reforms are needed to ensure all community land and resource rights are recognized and protected.

2) Communities Participate and Are Aware of Their Land Rights

Around the world, communities lack an adequate understanding of their rights and are often excluded from decision-making that affects their land and resources, despite laws to the contrary. In Tanzania, many communities believe the law requires that to benefit from investments, their land must first be transferred to the government before it can be allocated to investors. The law, however, permits communities to deal directly with investors, reducing the risks for communities and increasing their benefits. Women are particularly vulnerable. Despite their contributions to agriculture and role as primary food providers in rural households, they are rarely engaged in community-level decisions about their land.

Communities need to know their land and resource rights under the law and be able to share this information, including with potential investors. One solution is a Global Platform of Indigenous and Community Lands, a consolidated database and map currently under development that will show the location and security of communal lands. Developed by land rights organizations, the Global Platform is designed to help communities act to protect their lands.

3) Businesses Adopt Policies that Respect Community Land Rights

As new international land standards emerge, such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, businesses are increasingly adopting policies that respect indigenous and community land rights as well as the rights of other landholders. Although few companies have land policies consistent with these new standards, as the global rules governing land acquisitions and supply chains change, so too should company behavior. Also, as more communities learn of their land rights, more companies are losing money when they fail to respect legitimate community land rights, including customary rights. In response, companies should proactively develop and implement land policies consistent with new international land standards.

WRI's Land and Resource Rights initiative works to help achieve these three goals through policy-oriented research, spatial data and tools useful to all stakeholders concerned about insecure land rights. For more information, please visit our webpage.

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