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Making local people stewards of the earth

INTERLAKEN, Switzerland—The lack of land rights is a crisis not just for local people but for all of humanity, warned organizers at an international conference here.

Evidence shows that without more land under local control, our ability to tackle climate change, fight poverty, increase food availability, and preserve cultural and biological diversity will be seriously impaired, said Andy White of the Rights and Resources Initiative at the opening of the Community Land and Resource Rights conference on September 19 and 20.

Some 200 participants from 40 countries applauded a goal of doubling the amount of land recognized as owned or controlled by indigenous peoples and local communities by 2018.

There is a global rush to control land for logging, minerals and agricultural plantations, said Duncan Pruett, policy advisor on land rights for Oxfam, one of the conference organizers.

“We need to secure the rights of the people who live on the land. This is an age-old problem whose urgency only increases as the demand for resources skyrockets,” Pruett said.

In many developing countries, governments claim control over more than 90 percent of the land even though indigenous peoples and local communities have lived there for hundreds and thousands of years.

In fact, 1 in 3 hectares of lands governments have granted commercial concessions to is already used and occupied by indigenous communities, a new analysis released here shows.

The Munden Project used geographical information system mapping technology to analyze over 153 million hectares of concessions in 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It found that 31 percent of all commercial concessions by area are overlapped in some way by community-claimed lands.

Businesses and investors in these concessions often do not know the land is occupied because there are few formal land titles in much the developing world. This often leads to protests, confrontations and violence, the report noted.

From an investment perspective, “legal, civil and sometimes violent opposition to projects can impair profitability” by preventing and disrupting operations, said Lou Munden, head of the project.

Banks, investors, insurers and companies don’t factor in this reality when they assess or value the risk of a project, Munden told Inter Press Service (IPS).

If the 31 percent of concessions with overlaps are in agricultural production, some $5 billion of investments are at risk, he calculated. Those numbers ought to grab the interest of the business community, Munden said.

If companies want to reduce their risk and avoid disruptions they would be wise to work directly with local communities first, said Rukka Sombolinggi of the Indonesian indigenous organization Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (Aman).

“We are not opposed to development but it has to be the right kind of development in the right place,” Sombolinggi told IPS.

There are places that are too sacred to local people to allow any development. To get certainty and stability over the long term, companies need to work with local people, she said.

Thanks to Aman’s efforts, Indonesia was recently forced by its constitutional court to acknowledge that indigenous peoples had a legal right to their lands. The government had designated millions of hectare as “state forest lands.” Now at least 4 million hectares, including those with commercial concessions, are supposed to be re-allocated back to local people.

That is a major victory for indigenous peoples around the world, said Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, executive director of Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education (Tebtebba).

The reality is that lands and forests in indigenous territories are in better hands with local people than governments, Tauli-Corpuz told IPS.

This is borne out in a recent study that revealed tropical forests under strict protection by governments have far higher rates of deforestation than those under the care of local communities.

The Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) study compared peer-reviewed case studies in 16 countries and found that government-protected forests, including national parks, suffered six times greater rates of deforestation.

“When done properly, the benefits of community-based management can be seen over the long term, leading to greater conservation participation, reduced poverty, increased economic productivity and the protection of many forest species,” said study co-author Manuel Guariguata, Cifor senior scientist.

Meanwhile, indigenous territories are under tremendous pressure either for new land to grow food or to extract minerals, oil and gas.

“National and state governments are often part of the problem,” said Tauli-Corpuz, a Filipino from the Cordillera Administrative Region. “We are trying to push the international community to get states to recognize our right to our lands.”

That may be starting to happen, says Andy White, RRI coordinator and an Interlaken conference organizer. RRI is a global coalition of more than 150 organizations working on forest tenure, policy and market reforms.

“People trying to protect their traditional lands are still being killed or forcibly removed. But we may be at a tipping point favoring community land rights,” White told IPS.

Peru, Belize and other countries are recognizing those rights. Land disputes in India, Cambodia and elsewhere are driving political change.

Some parts of the corporate sector are supporting land rights. In July in Ireland, governments in the Group of Eight of wealthy nations made “unprecedented commitments” to secure land rights and improve land governance, he said.

“The conditions are right for a historic step and overcome a major obstacle to improving the well-being of people and the planet,” White said.

In Photo: The Bhumia tribal community practices sustainable forestry: These women returning from the forest carry baskets of painstakingly gathered tree bark and dried cow dung for manure.  (Manipadma Jena/IPS)






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