A version of this post appeared in DevEx.

Research shows that indigenous peoples and communities manage their forests and other ecosystems well if they have secure rights over their land. Because healthy ecosystems deliver a whole suite of services — from timber to non-forest products to carbon mitigation — it’s in the broadest public interest to know which land is held and used by communities, where tenure security exists for these people, and where it needs to be stronger.

Up to 65 percent of the world’s land is held by indigenous peoples and communities, but only 10 percent is legally recognized as belonging to them. The rest is held under customary tenure arrangements and is largely unmapped and not formally demarcated, which makes it essentially invisible to the outside world.

New LandMark Online Platform

The new LandMark online platform can help communities, governments and development professionals meet this challenge. LandMark is the first global platform that provides maps of the boundaries of indigenous and community lands around the world, as well as information on the percentages of land held and used by communities and the security of their land rights.

Many government agencies consider much of indigenous and community land vacant, idle and available for development, even though the people who live on this land depend on it for their food, housing, medicine and livelihoods. And because much of the land is not mapped, LandMark includes boundaries that are legally recognized as well as those that are held under customary tenure. In Australia, for example, LandMark shows that formally recognized aboriginal land rights cover 32.5 percent of the national land mass, while pending land claims cover an additional 41.6 percent.

LandMark also shows the percentages of national land that are communal land. For example, it shows that 78.9 percent of Africa’s land mass is held by Indigenous Peoples and communities under customary tenure. About 21 percent is formally recognized, while the remaining 57.9 percent is not.

On the key question of tenure security, the current set of indicators focuses on the law and what the law says about how well it protects and secures land rights of communities. While laws are not the only measure of tenure security, they are an important gauge. LandMark shows that many of these lands are not held securely and are at risk of being expropriated by governments or companies. LandMark also shows that many developing countries (e.g., Tanzania, South Sudan, Burkina Faso) actually have stronger land rights laws than developed ones (e.g., U.S. and Canada). These layers of data contained in LandMark are designed in part to encourage governments to strengthen laws where they are weak and implement laws where they are strong.

Strengthening land rights offers tangible advantages. WRI’s benefit-cost analyses of Brazil’s Indigenous Territories and the community concessions in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve suggest that securing community forest tenure is a low-cost, high-benefit investment that helps communities, countries and global society. And investing in strong community forest tenure security can be a cost-effective measure for climate-change mitigation compared to other mitigation measures.

Paris Negotiations

As the world’s attention turns toward Paris and the negotiations for a binding international agreement on climate change, indigenous and community land can play a role. The United Nations Development Program is working to ensure the needs and concerns of indigenous peoples are recognized at COP21, and LandMark could be a way to assist in that effort.

The wealth of information LandMark contains offers governments, development professionals and others the background to intelligently aid at-risk communities. At the local level, these maps differentiate between indigenous and community lands, then drill down to show whether the land rights are formally recognized by the government or not. It even offers detail on where specific pieces of land stand in the recognition process: whether formal documentation is in hand, is in prospect or is nonexistent. For lands that don’t have formal recognition, LandMark maps can indicate whether a formal land petition has been launched or whether it is being held or used without one.

For example, in two clicks on LandMark, Mexico’s Nuevo Rosarito community land in Baja California is shown to be formally recognized and documented. Another two clicks identifies much of Greenland as occupied or used without a formal land petition. In Matobe, in Indonesia, indigenous land is formally recognized and in the process of getting documentation.

Because formal recognition supports tenure security, which in turn encourages communities to effectively manage their land, it makes sense to focus on getting more community lands recognized. LandMark’s data layers assist governments and development agencies engaged in this important work. After all, much of the biodiversity, sequestered climate-warming carbon and many other ecosystem services that society depends on are found on communal lands, so making the rights to that land more secure is a sound strategy for our collective future.