The rights of indigenous groups and communities do not always make headlines, but a new initiative aims to change that. Today, more than 300 individuals and organizations launched the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights (GCA). The campaign aims to double the amount of land legally recognized as owned or controlled by Indigenous Peoples and communities by 2020, and eventually, secure lands for all communities and Indigenous Peoples. Securing this land can not only protect indigenous and community groups’ livelihoods, it can help foster more sustainable development and combat climate change.

The Problem of Insecure Land Tenure

Communal lands, all lands and natural resources that fall under the customary governance of communities and indigenous groups, may extend over more than 8.54 billion hectares—an estimated 65 percent of the global land area—and involve more than 2.5 billion people. Yet only 10 percent of the world’s land is legally recognized as belonging to communities, and 8 percent is designated by governments as community land.

The remaining communal land—perhaps 50 percent of the world’s land—is held under customary tenure arrangements but not formally recognized in law, leaving it insecure and vulnerable to being taken. It’s a principal reason that Indigenous Peoples and communities, especially those in Africa, Asia and Latin America, are consistently losing their land to governments and corporations for economic development and commercial investment purposes.

That’s a problem because land and natural resources such as forests, water and wildlife are primary sources of livelihood, nutrition, income, wealth and employment for communities in much of rural Africa, Asia and Latin America, but also Canada, Australia and other developed nations. These collectively held lands provide security, status, social identity, and a basis for political relations. For many rural communities, communal lands are also historically, culturally, and spiritually significant.

Community lands also play a vital role in mitigating climate change. Research shows that even the small amount of forests legally recognized as belonging to communities holds 37 billion tonnes of carbon, 29 times the annual emissions of all the passenger vehicles in the world. Communities and indigenous groups also tend to be better land stewards than other stakeholders—research shows that forests managed by communities have considerably lower deforestation rates than surrounding areas.

Achieving the New Global Goal for Secure Land Rights

Achieving the GCA goal and target will require action by communities, civil society, government, companies and donor agencies, including:

  • Governments must ensure their laws formally recognize communal lands, and that their actions protect indigenous and community land rights;
  • Companies and investors must ensure their land-based investments adhere to international land rights standards, such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, and do not undermine communal land rights;
  • Indigenous Peoples and communities, with the help of civil society organizations, can be proactive by mapping their communal lands, developing sound land-use plans, and obtaining official documentation from the state for their land.
  • Development assistance agencies can target their technical and financial support to help governments and civil society organizations contribute to securing land rights.

Regularly taking stock of progress made on the GCA is also critical to doubling the amount of community land under secure tenure by 2020. LandMark, an interactive global map, tracks lands that are used and occupied by Indigenous Peoples and communities, including lands that are legally recognized and lands that are held only under customary tenure arrangements. The platform also provides assessments of how well national laws protect these lands. LandMark, a product of a collective effort involving 13 leading land rights organizations, will be used to monitor the actions taken by governments and others to strengthen and protect communal land rights.

This tracking process is important because we know that when land administrations maintain information systems or publish tenure maps that include communal lands, these lands are better protected. In the absence of existing public information, communal lands are invisible. Transparency reduces the likelihood that such occurrences go unnoticed.

The GCA provides an occasion for the world to take action to protect communal lands. Let’s seize the opportunity, and help safeguard the livelihoods and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples and communities around the world.