Indigenous people and other rural communities inhabit more than 50 percent of the world's land, across all continents except Antarctica. Their stewardship of Earth's natural resources supports as many as 2.5 billion people with food, water, fuelwood and other life essentials. Less well-known, but also vitally important, is the role of community land in global efforts to avoid runaway climate change and achieve sustainable development. Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) endorsed by the world's governments, five directly address the role of land in securing humanity's future, and three specifically call for securing community land rights. Sustainable land use, by providing a cost-effective way to sequester carbon dioxide, also offers huge climate benefits. It is no exaggeration that achieving both SDG 13 on climate action and national commitments under the Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change depends in large part on better land stewardship.

Yet despite this global imperative, communities' land rights are being undercut. Globally, national laws recognize only 10 percent of land as belonging to communities, with another 8 percent designated for their use. Even less is registered and titled to communities. In Africa, Latin America and Asia, many countries neither recognize community land nor adequately protect customary tenure systems handed down through generations. Compounding communities' tenuous hold on their land, companies are increasingly competing with them for territory as global demand soars for foods, fuels, minerals and wood products.

As a result, governments are not only failing to protect people's ancestral land rights, they are missing out on a low-cost, high-reward public policy investment that experts believe benefits us all. This commentary makes the environment and development case for why securing community land rights should become a global priority. It then calls on governments to seize this opportunity by taking three actions. First, establish strong community land rights laws to spur people who live there to invest more in sustainable land management. Second, make it easier for communities to register and document their territory through clear, simplified land-formalization procedures. Third, level the playing field between communities and companies in the competition for land ownership and exploitation. The time is right to secure these lands now, for all our futures.

How Land Rights Are Crucial to Achieving the SDGs

In 2015, the 193 member states of the United Nations committed to deliver a shared blueprint for a prosperous and sustainable future for all by 2030. Three years on, the UN reported that progress on the 17 interconnected SDGs was uneven and the pace insufficient, with not one country on track to meet the deadline. In June 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on governments to "inject a sense of urgency" into their efforts to achieve the SDGs.

One reason for the slow progress is climate change, a global challenge that does not respect national borders. The mounting economic losses and destruction from weather and climate-related disasters have made it harder to bridge the gap on ambitious goals like ending poverty and hunger, reducing inequality and providing clean water. For example, droughts, floods and other disasters cost farmers in developing countries a staggering $96 billion in damaged or lost crop and livestock production between 2005 and 2015. As climate impacts intensify, it is clear that making progress on SDG 13 (climate action) is essential to achieving all 17 goals1.

SDGs and Land Rights Targets and Indicators

The 17 SDGs have 169 targets, each with one to three indicators to measure progress. Eight targets and 12 indicators under five SDGs (1, 2, 5, 11 and 15) recognize the importance of land to sustainable human development. SDG 1, 2 and 5 specifically address community land rights, as shown below.

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Target 1.4. By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as 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.

Indicator 1.4.2. Proportion of total adult population with secure tenure rights to land, with legally recognized documentation and who perceive their rights to land as secure, by sex and by type of tenure.

Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Target 2.3. By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment.

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Target 5.a. Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.

Indicator 5.a.1.(a) Proportion of total agricultural population with ownership or secure rights over agricultural land, by sex; (b) Share of women among owners or rights-bearers of agricultural land, by type of tenure.

Indicator 5.a.2. Proportion of countries where the legal framework (including customary law) guarantees women’s equal rights to land ownership and/or control.

Against this backdrop, securing land rights is emerging as a welcome yet still undervalued strategy for achieving many of the SDGs, including climate action. Land, together with its natural resources and ecosystem services, is the source of livelihood and wellbeing for billions of people around the world. Safeguarding communities' and indigenous peoples' right to this land, and its environmental resources, is therefore imperative to much of the UN's 2030 Agenda, including SDGs 1 (end poverty), 2 (end hunger), 8 (decent work and economic growth), and 5 (gender equity).

In addition, concrete evidence is emerging that securing community land rights supporting both SDG 13 and 15 (protect forests and other land ecosystems). In Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia, WRI researchers found that tenure-secure community land promotes forest conservation and climate mitigation, while in Peru, researchers from Resources for the Future and the InterAmerican Development Bank found that titling of indigenous land can quickly and significantly reduce both clearing and disturbance. As policymakers seek new, scalable approaches to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, securing land rights offers one solution by empowering communities with a stake in sustainably managing forests that act as carbon sinks.

For all these reasons, many land experts view community land — defined as territory collectively held and governed by a community, regardless of recognition under national statutory law — as crucial to achieving the SDGs. For example, Frits van der Wal, a land tenure specialist in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, describes land as "the maker and the marker of the Sustainable Development Goals."

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Indigenous peoples and other rural communities’ stewardship of Earth’s natural resources supports as many as 2.5 billion people with food, water, fuelwood and other essential materials. Diolo Celine harvests leaves from Gnetum spp. (okok) in the village of Minwoho, Lekié, Center Region, Cameroon. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

In Context: Community Land and Tenure Security

Historically, community land covered all or most of the land area of many countries. Today, more than 50 percent of the world's territory still remains in community hands, with the greatest amount in Africa. The amount of community land, however, is always changing. In some countries, such land is being individualized and privatized, while in others private or state land is being reconstituted under collective community management.

Land and its natural resources are critical assets for rural communities and indigenous peoples, and central to developing country efforts to achieve many SDGs. Community land delivers food, water, fuelwood, medicinal plants and other critical resources, while providing inhabitants with security, status, social identity and a safety net. For many communities, land is also historically, culturally and spiritually significant.

While each community manages its land in its own way, many maintain at least some land as common shared property such as forests, pastures and wetlands, which are available for use by all members. Other land is allocated to individuals or households for homesteads, family farms and other purposes, although it remains community land.

Natural Capital Shapes National and Household Wealth

Poor countries and poor people are highly dependent on natural capital—land, natural resources and ecosystems—for their development. Natural capital provides benefits to people in the form of flows of goods and services over time, such as food, timber, fiber, energy, clean water, clean air and protection from hazards. According to the World Bank, 36 percent of national wealth in developing countries is natural capital, compared to just 2 percent in industrialized OECD countries. In many low-income countries, however, natural capital accounts for more than 50 percent of wealth.

At community level, natural capital is the principal asset available to poor people, apart from their own labor. Nearly three-quarters of the world's poorest citizens are directly dependent on natural capital, which generates an estimated 47-89 percent of the "GDP of the poor" in developing countries. Due to a lack of, or constricted, access to markets, credit and technology, low-income households often depend on their surrounding environment for survival.

Most community land around the world is held under customary tenure systems. These traditional institutions and customs historically provided communities with tenure security. But growing threats from outside these communities are leading to insecurity and loss of land. Illegal logging is rampant in many heavily forested countries like Brazil, while land acquisitions for economic development purposes are on the rise around the world. Competition for land is intensifying as global demand rise for foods, fuels, minerals, fibers, wood products and other products. In many countries, companies, their investors and powerful local political and economic elites are acquiring land with government support and securing it for long periods of time. At the same time, customary tenure systems are weakening and no longer able to safeguard community land. When villagers lose their land many fall deep into poverty, even if they are resettled and compensated for their losses.

Lack of Formal Land Rights Endangers Communities

Further stacking the deck against communities, national laws in many countries do not recognize community land or adequately protect customary tenure systems. According to the Rights and Resources Initiative, only 10 percent of the world's land is legally recognized as belonging to communities, with another 8 percent designated by governments for community use.2 An estimated 78.7 percent of Africa's land is community land, yet only 26.7 percent is recognized as such under national law. Even in countries that do have supportive laws, governments do not always implement them effectively, such as in Malaysia.

Even less of the world's community land is officially recorded in a government cadastre (property register) and documented with a land certificate or title, further undercutting people's tenuous hold on their territory. Formalization is an essential step that integrates customary rights into legal systems,3 but a recent WRI report found that in many countries, national land laws have no procedure to register or title community land. In other nations, laws limit the customary land that qualifies for formal land rights. For example, in Cameroon, land that is "used and occupied" — principally homesteads and family farms — can be formalized, but not a community's common property. Communities and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that support them have been fighting for stronger land rights for decades. But in Brazil, Bolivia and other forest-rich countries, government efforts to formalize community land have instead stalled.

Together, these obstacles and barriers not only prevent community land from playing a role in meeting the SDGs, they pose a danger that rural and indigenous populations may instead slip further into poverty.

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The procedures to secure formal land rights are often complex, difficult and costly, and can stretch over decades. Photo by Juan Carlos Huayllapuma/CIFOR

Inequity between Communities and Companies

Legal recognition and formalization do not guarantee tenure security. But they matter because they can help communities safeguard their lands against the multiple threats described above, including corporate takeover. For example, formal land documents can help communities fight off challenges to land ownership. In court battles over land possession, legal recognition and titling of land commonly carries more weight than oral testimony on customary rights. And land certificates can provide communities with critical leverage in negotiations with investors, improving the chances that they receive a fair deal in sharing the benefits of a land transfer.

Unfortunately, however, even when communities are entitled to seek formal land rights, WRI researchers found that the procedures are often complex, difficult and costly, and can stretch over decades. In the Philippines, for example, the process requires 56 legally mandated steps, while in Indonesia, 21 government departments and agencies are involved. In Uganda, communities must wade through a 17-step process that requires approval from institutions that the government has yet to establish in some districts. In contrast, companies can quickly acquire formal land rights in many developing countries, sometimes in as little as 30 days. Regulatory and policy frameworks in developing countries tend to favor investors over communities. Companies, for example, often benefit from specific government support mechanisms while resource-strapped communities must rely on NGOs for help.

The Social and Environmental Consequences of Communities Losing their Land to Companies

In 2006, Bioshape, a clean energy company based in the Netherlands, leased 80,000 hectares of coastal woodland in Kilwa, southern Tanzania, to grow jatropha, a shrub whose oil can be used for green fuel. Tanzania’s government expropriated the land from local communities and leased it to the company. Farmers who had relied on their plots to grow maize and fruit, and for firewood were not fairly compensated and many fell into poverty. A lucky few secured jobs on the plantation, but these were lost when Bioshape went through bankruptcy proceedings in 2011. Before abandoning operations, the company cleared some of the land and sold the timber to subsidize its biofuel project. The trees had been sequestering carbon dioxide, helping mitigate climate change, and the forest was an important source of biodiversity and other ecosystem services to local populations. Bioshape’s failed investment therefore had profound adverse development and environmental outcomes, working against the government’s efforts to meet the SDGs.

As a result of this preferential treatment, some companies take shortcuts to acquire land while others brazenly begin commercial operations before obtaining final government approvals. In countries from Mozambique to Bolivia to the Philippines national laws require foreign investors to consult with communities. Yet, while some companies spend considerable time on community consultations, others only engage in token exercises to demonstrate legal compliance. As a result of these various advantages and loopholes, ethical companies that do right by communities are at a competitive disadvantage to those that act in bad faith by failing to meet the letter or the spirit of the law.

Securing Community Land Brings Local, National and Global Benefits

With many governments failing to protect their rights, and their land under unprecedented threat, rural communities around the world are mobilizing. Some are turning to the courts to help them realize their rights. Others are marching to state capitals, staging protests and meeting with government leaders. Many are mapping their land and challenging official government positions on boundaries and rights. Some have even organized their own patrols to monitor their land and evict intruders engaged in illegal logging.

This burgeoning community land rights movement has important worldwide implications. Community land is not just beneficial for the people that live and work there. It also generates significant regional and global benefits.

Development Returns

The development benefits of securing land rights, described earlier, support both local communities and national efforts to achieve social and economic progress and sustainable development. Tenure security creates incentives for community members to make land-related investments by providing them with high expectations of rights over the returns. It is also an important precursor to government interventions such as payments for ecosystem services or technical assistance. These in turn can promote long-term community investments in land stewardship that generate greater positive development and environment outcomes. In contrast, weak tenure discourages long-term investments and often leads to communities over-exploiting land and natural resources to maximize short-term benefits.4

Once their land is tenure-secure, communities are also more likely to be able to access project finance to sustainably manage their land. Government funding agencies and banks often consider titled community land to be more secure than customarily-held land, thereby reducing their investment risks. For example, while the Mexican government directly promotes and supports the creation of community forest enterprises, communities with outstanding land rights issues cannot take part.

Indeed, there is compelling evidence that tenure-secure community lands drive positive development outcomes such as enhanced land productivity, higher farmer income and improved social wellbeing. Revenues from timber and other forest products pay for projects such as installing electric lights and water-supply pipes, building roads and streets, developing food shops, providing support for widows and the sick, and funding scholarships for education. Community forests also provide employment to young people, women and local landless people. Many communities reinvest some revenues into improving their logging operations, taking on later stages of timber processing and diversifying into new economic activities, such as tourism. India, Nepal, Tanzania and Mexico are among countries where community forest enterprises are generating significant social and economic improvements.

Environmental Returns

In terms of environmental return, land rights generate a host of benefits that support the 2030 Agenda. At local and regional levels, these benefits can include regulation of local climate dynamics and water cycling, hydrological services for downstream water users, pollination, nutrient retention and recreation and tourism. Secure land tenure also helps support more than 350 million people in 70 countries who self-identify as indigenous peoples5 and hold up to 22 percent of the world's land, containing 80 percent of global biodiversity.

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Researchers have documented compelling evidence from many countries that tenure-secure community land yields positive environmental outcomes. For example, researchers from WRI and the InterAmerican Development Bank found that the average annual deforestation rates in tenure-secure indigenous forestlands in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia from 2000-2012 were two to three times lower than in similar land not managed by indigenous people6. Other research produced similar results for Panama, Brazil and across Latin America.7

Increasing the security of community land can quickly generate positive environmental outcomes. For example, in the Peruvian Amazon, titling of indigenous lands in 2002 reduced forest clearing by more than three-quarters and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds in the two subsequent years. And, while communities often prefer to own land, long-term leases can also generate investment incentives and promote sustainable land use. In Guatemala, for example, communities with 25-year (renewable) concessions over forestlands in the Maya Biosphere Reserve invest in sustainable forest management. Such cases illustrate how indigenous communities granted tenure security can play a key role in protecting forests and supporting SDG 15.

Land Tenure and Climate Mitigation: A Golden Opportunity

At a global level, one of the greatest benefits of securing community lands is their enormous potential for climate mitigation. By sequestering and storing carbon, managed forests and other landscapes support progress on SDG 13. A quarter of all GHG emissions comes from deforestation and other land use changes, although the rate varies widely across regions. For example, converting forests to farmland and other uses account for almost half of Latin America's total emissions.

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Given the intensifying destruction caused by climate change impacts, securing community land for climate mitigation is a low-cost, high-benefit investment. In a study published in September, communities in 52 tropical and subtropical countries manage at least 22 percent of forest carbon and 17 percent of the total carbon, including soil carbon, stored in forestlands8. Releasing this carbon—equivalent to 33 times the global energy emissions of 2017 — by developing this land, would be a climate catastrophe.9 Yet, about one-third of the carbon in forests is located on community land that is not legally recognized, putting both the communities and stored carbon at risk.

As noted in WRI's Climate Benefits, Tenure Costs report, in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia, the carbon benefits from tenure-secure indigenous forestlands are valued at $25 – 34 billion over the next 20 years. When other ecosystem-service benefits are also considered, the value jumps to between $679 billion and $1,530 billion or $4,559-10,274 per hectare. Meanwhile, government costs to secure indigenous land are far lower — estimated at US $45 per hectare in Bolivia, $68 per hectare in Brazil and $6 per hectare in Colombia.10 This amounts to at most 1 percent of the benefits, making investment in securing indigenous forestlands a cost-effective approach for developing country governments looking to show leadership on the SDGs.

Other carbon capture and storage approaches, by contrast, are more costly. For example, the costs of capturing carbon dioxide through carbon capture and storage (CCS) in power plants range between $19 and $91 per ton of carbon dioxide for coal-fired power plant and between $66 and $138 per ton of carbon dioxide for gas-fired power plant (originally estimated by IEA 2011, adjusted to 2015 dollar). Taking the average cost — $58 — of capturing carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, they are five to 29 times more expensive than carbon mitigation costs through securing indigenous lands in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia. For natural gas-fired power plants, the average cost of carbon capture and storage is estimated at $5, which is seven to 42 times more expensive than securing indigenous lands.11

How Protecting Forest Land Rights Can Meet Climate Commitments

The climate mitigation benefits from tenure-secure community land can help countries achieve both SDG13 on climate action and the commitments made in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Many governments recognize the key role of forests as carbon sinks, committing in their NDCs to protect forests, reduce deforestation rates and restore forestlands. However, to date, the NDCs of only 21 countries — representing 13 percent of the world's tropical and subtropical forest area — include clear commitments to secure community land or promote community management of natural resources. Of these, only Cambodia set a measurable target for securing community land rights in its NDC. Brazil, Indonesia and other large countries with high deforestation rates failed to do so.

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This missed opportunity will make it harder for countries to meet their climate targets and make progress on the SDGs. For example, Colombia's NDC commits to shrinking national GHG emissions by an estimated 67 megatons of carbon dioxide by 2030. Securing indigenous lands in the Colombian Amazon would avoid the release of about 3-4.6 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, adding up to 69 percent of the government's commitment by 2030. Yet the government's NDC makes no specific commitments on land rights.

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Securing collective land rights offers a low-cost, high-reward investment for developing country governments and their partners to meet national development objectives and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Photo by Alex Berger/Flickr

Securing the World's Community Lands: A Roadmap

There is a strong and compelling environment and development case to be made for securing community lands. Given the significant local, national and global benefits to be gained, making community land rights a priority agenda item offers a low-cost, high-reward investment for developing country governments and their development partners. Securing community lands is also a cost-effective climate mitigation measure for countries everywhere when compared to other carbon capture and storage approaches.

While each country has its own approach and unique circumstances for securing community lands, some important common measures can and must be introduced wherever they are absent. In particular, governments should prioritize:

  • Establishing strong community land rights laws. Statutory laws that do not adequately protect community land rights should be reformed or replaced by new supportive legislation. For instance, the laws in Bolivia and Colombia recognize indigenous land rights, but do not provide indigenous peoples with sufficient legal protections.
  • Establishing clear community land formalization procedures. Legislation and implementing regulations should provide a clear, accessible procedure for communities to register and document their land rights. Governments should simplify overly complex formalization procedures, amend steps that impose difficult burdens, and provide responsible agencies with the human and financial resources needed to document and protect all community lands.
  • Leveling the playing field between communities and companies. Governments should strengthen monitoring and oversight of companies with land-based operations, and require companies to receive the full, free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of affected communities. In addition, governments should ensure that industrial natural resource concessions are not allocated on community lands while applications for community land titles are pending.

If and when community lands across the world are properly secured, countries can accelerate progress on many SDGs as well as their climate targets. Given the looming threat posed to both environmental and development progress by climate change, the time to secure these lands is now.

Suggested Reading


1 There are three environmental SDGs: SDG 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; SDG 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development; and SDG 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
2 Land is owned by or designated for communities depending on the bundle of granted or recognized rights. About 67 percent of this land found in just five countries - China, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and Mexico.
3 For community land already legally-recognized, formalization constitutes a further confirmation ("double-locking") of rights.
4 Significant, long-term investments are risky when communities have little assurance that they will capture the resulting benefits.
5 There are more than 370 million self-identified indigenous people in some 70 countries around the world. They are people with distinct social, cultural, or economic characteristics, practicing in part or in full their own customs or traditions. The term includes those who are descended from people inhabiting a country or region at the time of conquest, colonization, or the establishment of modern boundaries. Whether a group of persons is considered indigenous (or a non-indigenous community) is based on self-identification (ILO Convention 169). The rights of Indigenous Peoples receive heightened protection under international law. Governments have a responsibility to recognize the unique relation that Indigenous Peoples have to their traditional or ancestral lands.
6 The researchers used cross-sectional data and methods, in essence measuring the effect of indigenous management by comparing the rate of deforestation on land under indigenous management with the rate on land without it, controlling for observable land characteristics. They examine the long-run effects of legally recognized indigenous management.
7 Muller et al. (2012) show that indigenous people in the Bolivian lowlands inhibited deforestation between 1992 and 2004; Vergara-Aseno and Potvin (2014) find that indigenous communities in Panama cut deforestation between 1992 and 2008; Nelson et al. (2001) conclude that indigenous groups in Darién, Panama, reduced deforestation between 1987 and 1997; Nolte et al. (2013) find that indigenous groups in Brazil avoided significant deforestation between 2000 and 2005, particularly in places with high deforestation pressure; and Nelson and Chomitz (2011) find that protected areas under indigenous stewardship (not indigenous land per se) in Latin America reduced fire incidence, a proxy for deforestation, between 2000 and 2008. In contrast to these five studies, Pfaff et al. (2014) conclude from a matching analysis that ICs in Acre, Brazil, did not have a significant effect on forest loss between 2000 and 2008.
8 Data is from 52 tropical and subtropical countries around the world.
9 Soil organic carbon accounts for almost 65 percent and nearly 90 percent of the total forest carbon managed by these communities in tropical and non-tropical forest countries, respectively.
10 The calculated sum of discounted total costs for a 20-year period.
11 It should be noted that the CCS reported by IEA (2011) only represent the lower bound estimate, as transport and carbon storage were excluded from the calculation.