Indigenous Peoples and other communities rely on their collectively held lands for food, water, livelihoods and well-being. Yet around the world, these groups face barriers to legally registering and titling these lands—and it’s getting worse.

While 50-65 percent of the world’s land is occupied and used by Indigenous Peoples and communities, only an estimated 10 percent of the world’s land is legally recognized as belonging to them, with another 8 percent designated by governments for them. Many countries had been taking important steps to protect indigenous and community land rights over the past 20 to 30 years, but more recently, there’s been a slowdown in the formal recognition of these lands, leaving communities vulnerable to losing their spaces to companies, governments and others.

In some cases, the pace of titling of indigenous and community land has fallen short of legal requirements, and in most countries, it has fallen far short of popular expectations. Government actions have contributed to this slowdown by, for example, defunding responsible government agencies and establishing new administrative measures that act as barriers to the community land recognition process.

  • In Peru, Indigenous forest communities must clear 27 bureaucratic hurdles to obtain official recognition and formal land titles, a costly process that can take more than a decade. It took 12 years and the murder of four traditional leaders for Alto Tamaya-Saweto, an indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon, to receive a land title. In contrast, companies seeking permits for logging or mining concessions in Peru face just three to seven bureaucratic steps, and can obtain their paperwork in only a few months.
  • In Tanzania, under the Village Land Act of 1999, villages can demarcate their land, register their rights and obtain certificates evidencing their rights. There are, however, significant technical and financial barriers to registering land, such as the cost of land surveying and preparing a comprehensive land-use management plan. As a result, most of the more than 14,000 villages in the country remain without certificates. As of 2009, 10,397 villages were registered, but only 753 had obtained certificates.
  • In Australia, under the Native Title Act of 1993, Aboriginal people must prove a continuity of traditional laws and customs on the land since European settlement, when the Crown asserted sovereignty over Australia. This connection is often difficult to prove, especially where there has been widespread urbanization or agricultural development, both of which extinguish native title. Connection reports can take several years to research, and may take up to three years for the government to assess them.  Plus, they can be quite expensive for the community.1

Maasai tribe in Tanzania. Photo by William Warby/Flickr
Maasai tribe in Tanzania. Photo by William Warby/Flickr

To help ensure all indigenous and community lands are formally recognized, countries around the world can take three actions:

  • Immediately halt proposed measures that would unnecessarily slow the process of formal recognition of indigenous and community land. For example, in Brazil, a proposed Constitutional Amendment 215 (PEC 215) would pass the authority of demarcating indigenous lands from the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), the government’s indigenous affairs department, to the legislature. If approved, the shift would likely cause significant delays in the recognition of indigenous lands, and many indigenous lands could be reduced in size.
  • Enact legislation and regulations that establish a formal and transparent documentation process. Measures that are complex to navigate and expensive to implement will put formal recognition out of most communities’ reach. Kenya enacted a Community Land Act just two weeks ago that calls for communities to define and register themselves, and then wait for the government to adjudicate, survey and register their land. Past experience suggests that relying on the Kenyan government often leads to poor and painfully slow results. Policymakers have yet to prepare enabling regulations under the act, but they should consider mandating government action within a prescribed period of time to ensure the process can be completed in a timely manner.
  • Prioritize the registration and titling of indigenous and community lands. Delays can result in communities losing their land. In Kenya, land remains vested in local government until communities secure formal title, but records show that the government has a history of using community land to meet short-term political purposes, such as allocating land to powerful individuals to help win elections. In Cambodia, there are 501 indigenous communities, but just 11 have received collective land titles. Many applications are stalled, creating a legal limbo. “We were better able to protect our lands before the government began registering it than we are now” said Lout Sang, an ethnic Kouy villager from Preah Vihear, bemoaning the lack of progress in his community’s land titling application.

In November 2015, hundreds of individuals and organizations from around the world launched the Land Rights Now campaign, with a target to double the amount of land recognized as owned or controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities by 2020. Establishing streamlined processes to formally recognize community land is central to achieving this goal, to protecting community lands and to promoting sustainable development.

  • LEARN MORE: In a forthcoming report, WRI will explore the economic benefits and costs of securing indigenous land rights. Stay tuned for the release in early October.

Similar requirements exist in the US for Native American communities to obtain federal recognition. As the process currently stands, tribes must prove they maintained a continuous community with political authority dating back to their first contact with non-Indians — a difficult process because of intermarriage and divided ancestral land.