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From Rhetoric to Action: Day 1 report

Photo: Luisa Rivers (Twitter)


Interest in the power of community land and resource rights to achieve positive social and environmental change is escalating. In opening this conference, Melchior Lengsfeld, of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, noted that the conference was oversubscribed and that people had to be turned away.

The conference follows up on a meeting held in 2013, also in Switzerland, to address the lack of clarity and recognition of community land and resource rights.

At that 2013 meeting, Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), reported that the lack of rights to land and resources was a global crisis.

“Two years later,” he said today, “it is still a crisis.” The murder of people trying to protect their land and resources, and the number of conflicts over land, have increased, and land-grabbing persists. RRI research shows a huge gap between the legitimate rights and claims of local people – up to 65% of the world’s land area – and the area of land (less than 20%) where those rights are recognized. The gap is huge.

On the other hand, said White, there has been much progress in the last two years – new laws and policies, court decisions that respect local land rights, and commitments by companies to do better. These offer hope that closing the gap between the aspirations and realities of local people is possible.

Michael Taylor, from the International Land Coalition, suggested three things to keep in mind in planning how to fill the gap: 1) build on the gains made –governments are more willing than they’ve ever been to sit down with stakeholders and talk about how land processes can be improved; 2) build alliances – none of us can achieve the necessary changes alone; and 3) build on successes – much is being done, and it’s time to move into action mode.

Duncan Pruett, from Oxfam, reported that his organization is part of a global call for action aiming to double, by 2020, the land area over which indigenous peoples and local community have rights. Pruett believed that this call for action will provide support for existing struggles and help persuade those with means and power to take concrete steps in its achievement.

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, reported that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are still being violated, including through arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and land-grabbing. Some countries, she said, are retreating from policies favouring indigenous rights, and this is manifesting in an increase in conflicts. She recommended several actions to address the situation.

Six “strategy groups” met to identify challenges, opportunities and strategies in moving forward and reported back to plenary.

Strategy Group 1, on community land maps and tenure security, noted several challenges for community mapping, such as gaining access to spatial information from governments. A crucial action is to develop clear protocols on the use of, and the rights and privileges to, information, especially that provided by communities.

Strategy Group 2, on building legal capacity to secure land rights, proposed actions such as developing legal capabilities in communities as a way of increasing their knowledge of their rights and of the laws that affect those rights. Another recommended action is to write community laws as bylaws, among other things as a way of saying “we are not victims, we are protagonists”.

Strategy Group 3, on leveraging private-sector action to secure community land rights, discussed a guidance document recently released to help businesses put the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure into practice. Possible actions include obtaining adoption of the guidance document by companies; generating capacity to help companies interface with local communities; incorporating the Voluntary Guidelines in regulations (e.g. those of the OECD) to influence supply chains; and improving databases to encourage community-friendly decision-making by financial institutions and investors.

Strategy Group 4, on expanding engagement of conservation actors in securing indigenous and community land rights, reported that the “top down” conservation paradigm still predominates in the wider world. Steps that could be taken to change this include using the convening power of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to bring conservation organizations together with indigenous rights organizations.

Strategy Group 5, on scaling up women’s land and resource rights, proposed strengthening the voices of women around land rights; strengthening partnerships among gender advocacy organizations; integrating women’s land rights and gender issues in private-sector policies; developing capacity on gender issues among government officials; increasing women’s access to advocacy; and, for donors, empowering women within their projects.

Strategy Group 6, on establishing community and indigenous land and resource rights as a global priority, saw two immediate opportunities: 1) advocacy at COP 21 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; and 2) influencing the national-level implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the indicator-building process, especially those related to land.

By Alastair Sarre

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