As women are often the users and custodians of land, securing their tenure is said by experts to be a necessity in order to improve landscape sustainability. Ulet Ifansasti, CIFOR

Shoring up tenure security to tackle land degradation

At UNCCD COP15, scientists and community members came together to help improve land tenure

“Land tenure security is one of the biggest challenges in the restoration and land degradation space.”

These were the words of  Peter Minang, a principal scientist at World Agroforestry (ICRAF) during a scientific session held alongside the UN Convention to Combat Desertification’s 15th Session of the Conference of the Parties (UNCCD COP15) in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. The session,  ‘Land tenure security as a catalyst to achieve land degradation neutrality’, linked new tools for promoting land tenure with the latest research on land rights and stories told by local African community members on why land tenure is crucial for their livelihoods.

Audace Kubwimana, a regional coordinator of the Africa International Land Coalition and fellow panelist in the discussion, went further still: “We want to place land rights at the center of solving most current global challenges,” he said. “Climate change, inequality, democracy, land degradation: for all of these issues, land rights are a prerequisite to solving them.”

The UNCCD holds as its central target the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)15.3: reaching land degradation neutrality (LDN) by 2030. To achieve this target – which means that the amount of resource-providing land in the world remains stable – it’s widely agreed that securing land rights for local communities will be a necessary, if not foundational, piece of the puzzle.

The reasons why are manifold. Laura Rahmeier, senior project manager for climate change at the charitable foundation Robert Bosch Stiftung, explained that land rights are “a critical mechanism that allows people to find, implement, and scale the most appropriate solutions for themselves and also for their communities, by engaging them in the decision-making processes.” 

Tenure security also increases people’s motivations to protect and restore land over the longer term. “When people have secure land rights, they like to invest in the land, because they know that they can reap the benefits of that healthy and productive land in the future,” said Enni Kallio, a junior program officer at UNCCD. That security can also attract funds from large-scale investors in LDN, she added.

But many of the world’s estimated 2.5 billion Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant, and local communities lack secure land rights, said Patrick Kipalu, the program director for Africa at the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). While these groups customarily manage over half of the global landmass, they only hold legal rights to around a tenth of it. On the African continent, the issue is particularly acute, with communities there having customary ownership of over 90 percent of land but legal rights to less than 10 percent. “Fortunately, there’s been some progress in addressing this historical injustice in recent years,” said Kipali, “as many governments have begun to pass new legislation and achieve court decisions to recognize community rights: in many African countries, very progressive reforms are taking place.” 

However, as Rahmeier acknowledged, “while the importance of land rights is widely 

recognized at present, there are still questions around how to realize them”. To that end, research associate Ilse Pelkmans of the TMG Think Tank for Sustainability, a co-host of the session, shared a new tool, the Human Rights & Land Navigator. The tool connects the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure (VGGT) – an internationally-negotiated framework to improve land governance, which has received widespread support but is not legally binding – to binding human rights obligations. “There are so many human rights instruments and articles, and for people who don’t have a legal background, it can be difficult to navigate,” said Pelkmans. “This tool helps people to identify the instruments that can help them to advocate for protection.”

At the grassroots edge of transformation, Diana Kyalo – a program specialist at the Cadasta Foundation – shared her experience working with forest-dwelling communities in Kenya’s Mau Forest to map ancestral lands using mobile applications. “Having these communities document their tenure rights helps to get their rightful ownership acknowledged and hold political actors accountable to their commitments. The map itself can also be used as a tool for the community, to identify responsibilities, show where resources are and help with dispute resolution,” she said. “These communities have been key in conserving and protecting the forest – and they can only do so if their rights and their access are protected.”

Also in rural Kenya, Violet Shivutse, the founder and coordinator of Shibuye Community Health Workers, described some of her organization’s work facilitating the development of community-driven land-leasing guidelines as a means to boost women’s and girls’ land access and food security. “Buying land is expensive and requires collateral, which many women and girls do not have, but land leasing provides an opportunity to access and use land and make decisions on what they want to grow,” she explained.

Sunday Geofrey Mbafoambe, the coordinator of the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF)’s Cameroon chapter of its local GLFx network, gave a sobering report on land rights recognition in his country, where almost all land belongs to the state. Historically, much of that land has been managed by communities through customary law, “but this is very discriminatory and exclusionary,” said Mbafoambe, “because while the local population is protected by customary law, the Indigenous peoples are excluded, even though they have lived there for centuries.”

To ensure more equitable and sustainable outcomes, land rights need to be carefully defined, legislated, and communicated, pointed out John Kamanga, the director of the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO). Individualized titles, in particular, can be extremely problematic in communal societies – and can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous outsiders. “As we push to give people rights, we need to make sure that we help them understand what they can do with those rights, rather than handing them a tool that actually becomes dangerous,” said Kamanga. “Some of these communities that have been given individual ownership of land, then treat it as a commodity to be traded on the market – but once they’ve sold it, it doesn’t benefit them anymore.”

Anne Larson, a principal scientist and governance team leader for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), reiterated this challenge among others in her closing summary: “One major pitfall is getting the concept of tenure security wrong,” she said. “It’s not a land title. Customary systems can be very secure; titles can be terribly undermined. It’s a very complex set of issues.” She emphasized that tenure security is broader than just land, and also encompasses aspects such as governance, livelihoods, health, territory, culture and self-determination. She highlighted the need for dialogue on tenure to consciously and carefully foster equity and build the counter-power of marginalized groups, rather than reinforcing existing hierarchies. 

“It’s clear that there are no magic bullets or blueprint solutions; we’ve known this forever, yet blueprints are still the way most interventions like to operate,” Larsen said. “Perhaps, instead, we can come up with a guided approach which has principles and tools for engagement, that will allow us to work within each context and find solutions together with local people – so we aren’t just finding solutions, we’re designing for engagement.” 

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land rightslocal communitiesrightstenureUNCCD COP15



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