In Nepal, a woman cuts lemongrass to be distilled into essential oil. Chandra Shekhar Karki/CIFOR

Why land tenure must be at the center of climate talks

Panelists call for legal recognition for Indigenous peoples and local communities

This topic will be discussed at the Global Landscapes Forum New York 2019. Learn more about how to join here.

Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) have a proven track record of effective environmental stewardship: traditional Indigenous territories account for a fifth of all land yet hold 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. Legal recognition of traditional Indigenous land, territories and resources provides strong protection against large-scale economic pressures such as land grabbing and commercial forest use. But with few exceptions, progress towards widespread formalization of IPLC forest and land tenure rights has remained slow and scattered.

This gap in land tenure reform is the central theme of the most recent assessment report of the 10th goal of the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), which is to “strengthen forest governance, transparency, and the rule of law, while also empowering communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples.” Progress towards each NYDF goal is assessed annually and often accompanied by the commissioning of new research.

The Global Landscapes Forum hosted a digital summit in July that tackled the implications of this new research. Speakers presented takeaways from and responses to NYDF briefs on the state of land tenure security and forest-dependent community empowerment as well as a look into avenues for change.


Fabrice Dubertret, a geographer at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3, highlighted the disconnect between IPLC lands and the extent to which states formally recognize and respect their tenure. His research, which mapped and documented the legal status of customary lands on a quarter of the planet’s total land area, reveals that IPLCs customarily hold 57 percent of all land in the studied area, but only about two thirds of this land is legally recognized.

Legal recognition alone is not enough to ensure IPLCs can exercise all their rights, though. NYDF-IIED brief author James Mayers elaborated that where legal protection of IPLC land tenure does exist, enforcement is often lacking because of either overlapping legal frameworks or competing interests. He emphasized that this lack of enforcement often allows for land grabbing and violence against communities who try to protect their land. These factors exacerbate existing and growing stresses on IPLC livelihoods.

“Millions of communities need forests, and forests need community empowerment,” Mayers stressed, adding that forest-linked communities with real decision-making power in forest governance are effective resource custodians and enjoy securer livelihoods.

Citing findings from twelve years of the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s rural sector performance assessments, Mayers noted that save for rare cases such as in Nepal, community empowerment has not been the focus of developments in governance.


Offering a response to this research was Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an Indigenous environmental activist from the Mbororo pastoralist community of Chad and the coordinator of the Association of Peul Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT). Ibrahim called on actors convening in New York in September for the U.N. Climate Week NYC 2019 to act radically to put forests and IPLCs at the center of discussions.

She stressed that the only way to meet emissions reduction targets will be to engage all sectors and stakeholders through a bottom-up approach. Such engagement is particularly important to women in rural areas, who play a major role in forest protection but often face the greatest tenure insecurity, Ibrahim emphasized.

“Nature-based solutions are a way of life for Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples are ready to put forests and IPLCs at the center. Are you going to help us?” she challenged potential climate negotiators.

Despite the many hurdles to closing the implementation gap in securing forest and land tenure rights for IPLCs, there is hope in multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral platforms, which can provide the space necessary to initiate broad, fast, radical, and collaborative change.

“Everybody has their role to play on their level implementation,” concluded Ibrahim, “and that can change the world. That’s why the Global Landscapes Forum is the forum [that provides] the great example of putting everybody at the same level, from communities to business to ministers, and bringing everybody together to share and put ideas into creating a sustainable world.”



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