Land tenure refers to the right of people to manage the land on which they live. Ulet Ifansasti, CIFOR

Human rights protect tenure rights, as a new digital tool shows

Q&A on the Human Rights & Land Navigator with one of its developers

According to just about every major environmental organization, one of the most powerful but overlooked means to fighting climate change is securing the tenure of people to their lands. 

It makes sense: Why would a farmer invest in planting trees if by the time they grow enough to help his crops, someone might have forcibly taken his plot? People who can trust their land is lawfully theirs are more likely to care for it well – and have better livelihoods than those who can’t.

Ten years ago, the Committee on World Food Security adopted the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, known by its acronym as the VGGT and regarded as the foundational framework for securing tenure not only to land but also to fisheries and forests. However, the change that the VGGT could achieve for the lives of millions is thwarted by the fact that its proposed regulations are, as its name states, voluntary.

As such, Berlin-based sustainability organization TMG ThinkTank, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Malawi Human Rights Commission have for the past two years been developing a human rights-based approach to land governance that can strengthen the application of the VGGT by connecting them to binding human rights obligations. The result of these efforts is a first-of-its-kind digital tool, the Human Rights & Land Navigator, which works like a search engine for linkages between the VGGT and land-related international human rights standards. One can filter for specific land issues – related to finances, decision-making processes or fair land allocation, for instance – and then see which rights are at stake and which rights instruments are relevant, helping to inform legal action and advocacy.

The Navigator launches on 12 May, and ahead of that, Landscape News got a sneak peak of the tool and spoke with one of its core developers Ilse Pelkmans, who researches land governance at TMG, to learn more about how it works and what it can accomplish.

A woman and her herd of goats in Tanzania. Riaz Jahanpour, USAID
A woman and her herd of goats in Tanzania. Riaz Jahanpour, USAID

How was the Navigator conceived? 

We believe securing tenure rights of vulnerable groups will become even more important in the future, with more pressure on land and more potential for conflicts. So if tenure rights are not secured well, there’s really a risk that many people will suffer.

Two pilot studies in Kenya and the Ivory Coast in 2017 and 2018 showed how using a human rights–based approach can help improve responsible governance of land. The first step to this approach is understanding how exactly land governance and human rights are linked – and so the idea of the Navigator was born. 

Why did you choose the VGGT to put at the Navigator’s core?

As the VGGT are globally recognized guidelines for responsible land governance, they were taken as the basis for the Navigator. It’s a good document, but its application is still weak. It celebrates its tenth year this year, and from that decade of experience, we realized, hey, the voluntary aspect makes it a bit weak. So what can we do? What tools can we give people to hold governments accountable for applying the VGGT? 

And how does that work?

The VGGT are not legally binding, but they are based on human rights obligations that are binding. So basically, the Navigator gives more guidance on how land rights are connected to human rights and therefore set in legally binding human rights instruments. 

The Navigator shows, for example, that the right to land is included in three human rights instruments: the UN declaration and the ILO Convention on the rights of Indigenous people (UNDRIP and ILO C169) and the UN Declaration on the rights of peasants (UNDROP).  It also shows how other instruments, like the covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) – even without a clear right to land included in them – describe that access to land is a precondition to realizing the right to food, to adequate housing, to an adequate standard of living and other human rights. I think we ended with more than 11,000 linkages between the VGGT and human rights.

Farmers in Tanzania. Riaz Jahanpour, USAID
Farmers in Tanzania. Riaz Jahanpour, USAID

How does the Navigator help people enforce their rights?

There are different ways that the information you are getting from the Navigator can be used. First, it can inform advocacy. Take the inheritance rights of women. It might not be the case that women get access to land based on their national land laws. But if you use the Navigator to find the human rights that are related to access to land, you can use this to underpin your arguments in advocating for this right and improve national land laws. Governments that have ratified a human rights instrument are bound to respect the rights therein.

The Navigator can also help build your legal arguments for settling a land dispute in court, by using the human rights obligations to land, property and food, as well as to equality and non-discrimination, access to information and the right to remedy, just to mention a few. You can link your case to these rights, including the specific human rights instruments that are referring to those rights.

It also works the other way around: if you already know which human rights are violated, but you’re wondering how these violations are linked to land governance, you can use the Navigator and find out what States should do in land governance to make sure a particular human right is not violated. 

So it goes in these two directions. You can have a land issue or be a land expert and find out which human rights can support your case, and you can also be a human rights expert looking for clear guidance on how States should govern land, as described in the VGGT.

How will you get this tool to the people who need it?

I do think the Navigator is probably too technical for someone in a remote area of the world who, for instance, has a husband who died and realizes she doesn’t have access to a particular piece of land anymore, losing the basis of her livelihood. It would be great, but I’m not sure if this is a very hands-on tool for someone on a grassroots level. 

I believe this tool will rather be used by land and human rights actors, such as national human rights institutions as well as NGOs that that are defending the interests of communities who are at risk or have already lost access to land and therefore their livelihood. They can use it for litigation or advocacy for their case or to engage in a dialogue with local land administration officers, so that those leaders learn about the human rights obligations underpinning the VGGT and understand what States should do to secure the tenure rights of vulnerable people. 

Watch the livestream of the launch event, Rights, Rewards and Responsibilities: Achieving Restoration Objectives through Safeguarding Legitimate Tenure Rights, on 12 May 2022 at 13:00 (GMT).

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