Raising the importance of a people and community-centred land tenure approach in the fight to combat land degradation and drought

Marie-Aude Even - Senior regional agronomist for Asia/Pacific (IFAD)

Land tenure was high on the official agenda and side events of UNCCD’s recent COP14, held in New Delhi. A working document was presented, raised lengthy debates, and finally led to the adoption of an note titled ‘New and emerging issues: land tenure’. For the first time at such level, the fundamental importance of Land Tenure for combatting land degradation was recognized and integrated into the UNCCD. The New Delhi declaration reaffirms the relevance of the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) and encourages enhanced land governance, multi-stakeholders’ participation and community-driven projects. UNCCD concluding speech highlighted that COP14 “was the COP where we Put people at the heart of what we do”, referring notably to the adoption of the land tenure text.

IFAD emphasizes the importance of securing access to land and developed a toolkit to address it in its investments. IFAD already implements most principles along its strong mainstreaming agenda, widespread community-centred mechanisms and Social, Environmental and Climate Assessment Procedures (SECAP). IFAD also adopted the principle of “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) which could not be integrated in the text adopted at COP14. More could therefore still be done in the context of COP14, and it will facilitate further considerations of such issues in countries. An additional frontier would be to integrate the sensitive issue of water rights, which is not included in the VGGT. Indeed, drought was also a rising topic during COP14 and the land tenure paper recalls that secured land rights are required for water related investments. On the other hand, such investments in irrigation can also lead to individual appropriation of common ground water. However, the issue of water tenure (FAO, 2016) was not mentioned, although it closely connects to land tenure and may become increasingly sensitive in context of shared and scarce ground water.

Following requests by the Civil Society Organization Panel and recommendations in the scientific frameworks of the UNCCD, land tenure was included in the agenda of COP1 and a progressive working paper was submitted (see box). The paper and propositions raised discussions and oppositions during the first week. Some countries notably highlighted the need to consider country specificities and various definitions of land tenure. They also stressed that the VGGT remained voluntary and refused references to, inter alia, sovereignty and FPIC. Many parties and stakeholders were strongly supporting the agenda, notably many active CSOs (600) accredited to the UNCCD, including members from the International Land Coalition. Indeed, securing community and people’s tenure rights is even more important as UNCCD is calling for more private sector investments, including potentially large-scale restoration efforts.

Key elements from the Land tenure note submitted by UNCCD secretariat

Humans have always had an intimate relationship with the land, and settlements have ebbed and flowed, appeared and disappeared, partly as a result of the interaction between natural resource management and climate conditions. Land tenure security increases the resilience of populations and ecosystems

The working paper submitted by the UNCCD secretariat reviews the different types of land tenure and its relations to land degradation and land degradation neutrality. It mentions that “how secure land rights are significantly influences the way that land is managed”. Secured land rights are required to motivate long term investments in land. Land conservation and restorations practice often involve investment which often require long term tenure right to allow such practice and benefit from them (for instance planting beneficial trees, hedgerows, terraces and erosion control mechanisms etc.). On the other hand, lack of tenure security may lead to degrading practices to assert and defend claims to land (such as “clearing to claim” and “defensive farming”). Very degraded and unproductive land often have “no obvious occupants” while being used by most marginal populations. This can lead to more contentious situations or difficulties with owners appearing once the land has been restored. The paper does not only deals with private land tenure but also acknowledges the importance of “community management” and that “All tenure rights are limited by the rights of others and by measures of public interest promoting general welfare”. The paper recommends to explore “how best to recognize customary land tenure in the legal and policy framework” as well as to promote local community dispute resolution systems. It calls for the “establishment of social and environmental safeguard” to protect various user rights and livelihoods, notably women and more marginal farmers in context of large-scale reforestation, land rehabilitation and recovery schemes.

Apart from official negotiations, most side events also raised the importance of securing land rights not only for individual but also for community and communal spaces, contributing to enrich the dialogue and convince parties. For instance, land tenure was highlighted in the two side events that IFAD organized. The side event on “shifting cultivations”, organized with ICIMOD, ILC and Wocat, stressed the transversal importance of land tenure, participatory local governance of land use and access to information and data to support informed community land management. The specific context of “shifting cultivation” often falls under very specific customary land tenure systems whereby community institutions govern the shifting cultivation process. Lao representative presented successful results from the TABI FALUPAM approach that promotes participatory land use mapping, communal titling, and co-location of farmers in one block of land to practice shifting cultivation. Amalendu Jyotishi (FES, representing ILC) highlighted how land tenure regimes, building on informed community management, can support land degradation neutrality (LDN). The side event organized by GEF and IFAD on food resilient systems also highlighted the importance of participatory governance, engaging men and women and securing their right to motivate and secure returns to restoration investments. It provided success stories of landless women having obtained secured land rights over marginal land that they restored, contributing to increase their access to agricultural land. However, restored land may remain fragile. Collective governance is often required to regulate various uses of such restored land.

The agreed text of the note submitted by the UNCCD secretariat on land tenure includes land tenure as a new thematic under the convention. The text recognizes communities’ “legitimate tenure rights, including customary land rights” and invites parties to recognize and promote inclusive community-based conflict resolution mechanisms. It also calls for investment programs to adhere to environmental and social safeguards in line with the VGGT and national legislations. It also puts a strong accent on inclusiveness. It invites parties to recognize legally equal use and ownership rights of land for women. Land degradation measures shall be gender sensitive and non-discriminatory, promoting equal tenure rights and access to land, notably women and marginal groups. It encourages parties to implement the VGGT alongside LDN program and “invites parties to review and, where appropriate, adopt national land governance legislations and procedures in order to support sustainable land use and land restoration”. However, the parties failed to adopt specific recommendations that linked this need for inclusion with the principle of FPIC. It requests the secretariat to explore options to integrate the SDG land governance indicators into UNCCD reporting process. It invites FAO and other partners to develop guidelines to integrate the VGGT in the convention. It also requests the secretariat to promote further awareness raising on this topic during the future sessions and to report on the topic.