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land rights

In much of Africa, the bundle of land rights that most rural people legally hold is relatively small—usually limited to surface rights and certain rights to some natural resources on and below the surface, such as rights to water for domestic use. Many high-value natural resources—such as oil, natural gas, minerals, and wildlife—are governed by separate legal regimes and administered by different public institutions. Africa’s governments often allocate these rights to outside, commonly foreign companies for large-scale operations. In other words, while many communities hold rights to the land, foreign companies hold the rights to the natural resources on or under the same plot. These overlapping rights oftentimes lead to conflict, unsustainable use of resources, and injustices.

WRI’s Land and Resource Rights project aims to ensure that rural people and the urban poor have secure rights over their land and natural resources.

Since 2009, more than 30 countries have submitted proposals for REDD+ readiness grants to start addressing the social, economic, and institutional factors that contribute to forest loss. Many countries have made encouraging strides in defining their plans to become “ready” for REDD+.

Yet, in a new WRI analysis of 32 country proposals, we identify the need for stronger commitments and strategies to address land and forest tenure challenges. While most countries identify secure land tenure as critical to successful REDD+ programs, relatively few outline specific objectives or next steps to address weaknesses in land laws or their implementation. Lack of clear strategies to address land tenure challenges could significantly hinder efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

The new working paper from WRI’s Governance of Forests Initiative reviews 32 readiness proposals submitted to two grant programs supporting REDD+ readiness: the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and the UN-REDD Programme. We reviewed these documents to assess how REDD+ countries plan to address eight core issues (see Box 1 below). The analysis sheds light on how REDD+ issues are understood and prioritized, as well as where more technical and financial support is needed.

Rural farmers depend on land and natural resources for food, income, and their physical well-being. But what happens when national or local governments prevent rural people and communities from farming their land?

All governments have the authority to restrict the use of private land, usually for public interest purposes, such as environmental management or biodiversity conservation. In these cases, the affected individuals should be compensated for their losses even though the land remains theirs. Problems arise when governments routinely restrict the use of private property for ordinary government business or for meeting short-term political ends. With weak rights to their property and insecure tenure arrangements, local people stop investing in their land and natural resources. In many countries, governments restrict the use of private property without consulting the landholders or providing compensation. With courts too expensive to access, poor people have few opportunities for recourse.

As government leaders prepare for next month’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil, one issue is conspicuously absent from the agenda: land rights. Strong property rights—the rights for people to access, control, transfer, and exclude others from land and natural resources—create incentives to invest in sound land management and help protect land from expropriation.

Strengthening land rights has not featured prominently in Rio+20’s first two Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meetings or the “Informals” that preceded them. In fact, only one line in the 29 March draft of The Future We Want, the principle outcome document for Rio+20, touches on land rights. That reference—“avoid creating food and water insecurities and limiting access to land, particularly for the poor”—has already been opposed by a number of developed nations, including the United States and the European Union.

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