Securing land rights: one stone, three birds
Land tenure defines who owns land and its resources and under what conditions. Roughly 65% of the world’s total land area is managed under local, customary or communal tenure systems, but Indigenous Peoples and local communities have formal legal ownership of only 10% of the land.
These numbers are all the more sobering when the top climate scientists recognise that strengthening land tenure security is central to transition to a green economy. Similarly, biodiversity scientists have found that deforestation is lower on land managed by Indigenous Peoples. Securing land rights also increases sustainable productivity, securing livelihoods and fighting poverty. All in all, tenure security comes with significant climate, biodiversity and development benefits: three birds with one stone. However, when looking at the national climate plans of major forest countries, more could be done to foster the securing of land rights.
Why does land tenure security matter?
Land tenure insecurity is a key driver of deforestation and land degradation. In various African countries, farmers burn down forests as a means to secure more farmable land. Without land security, farmers and local communities have no incentive to protect valuable tree species that take years to mature into marketable timber resources.
In contrast, the Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds that strengthening the land and resource rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities is:
- A precondition for good land governance
- A unique opportunity to combat climate change and safeguard biodiversity, including by preventing deforestation and forest degradation
- One of the best nature-based solutions, able to unleash numerous sustainable development benefits
This is in part because securing land rights, including through customary systems, can incentivise farmers to adopt long-term climate-smart practices. These practices:
- Increase sustainable productivity, thereby strengthening food security
- Enhance farmers’ resilience
- Reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions
- Increase carbon sequestration – the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, thereby reducing climate change
In Ghana for example, cocoa farmers that hold a land certificate have an income per hectare that is on average 15.5% higher than those without. Being a legal landowner increases productivity by 21.9% on average, all other variables being equal. Knowing that poverty is a key deforestation driver, securing land rights, and thus farmers’ income, can play a significant role in fighting forest loss.
Furthermore, having documentary evidence of legal land ownership will enable operators in increasingly regulated markets to carry out their due diligence obligations. It will also enable smallholders and farmers to demonstrate legal compliance, thereby helping them access sustainable supply chains and international markets. This access typically means they will be able to sell their products at a higher price than on domestic markets, thereby increasing their income and rewarding their sustainable and legal practices.
The multiple benefits of secure land tenure are not only well known among the international community. An EFI-led project in the Republic of the Congo found that 100% of women and youth identify the need for legally securing their access to land as their number one priority. The strong link between land tenure and the fight against climate change calls for assessing whether national climate plans have given land tenure security the attention it deserves in their national climate plans.
Land tenure in climate plans
Ahead of the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015, countries were invited to submit their ‘intended’ post-2020 climate plans, known as their intended nationally determined contributions (NDCs). A brief by the Rights and Resources Initiative, “Indigenous Peoples and Local Community Tenure in the INDCS,” reviewed 130 or so intended NDCs. It found that only 21 countries, representing 13% of tropical and subtropical forest area, had made a clear commitment to implement Indigenous Peoples and local communities tenure security or community-based natural resource management.
In 2022, ahead of the Glasgow Climate Change Conference or COP26, Parties to the Paris Agreement on climate change were invited to review their NDCs. This provided them with an opportunity to address tenure security or strengthen their existing pledges. In a 2021 blog post, “Taking stock of national climate plans: what’s in it for forests?”, we reviewed 19 NDCs of forest-rich countries in 2021 and found that limited progress has been made:
- Four mention land tenure
- The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the only one to mention land tenure of Indigenous Peoples
- Côte d’Ivoire is the only one to mention land tenure of local communities
- Nine include a vague reference to Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ rights: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Indonesia, Liberia and the Republic of the Congo
Among the 19 countries analysed in 2021, six submitted updated NDCs in 2022. But only one of these, Gabon, added a reference to land tenure to its NDC.
How to accelerate the securing of tenure
To foster the securing of land rights and “kill the three birds” (address climate change, protect biodiversity and unleash development benefits):
- Concerned countries should engage in reflections to offer legal alternatives to land titling through some more affordable and speedier process that provides legal certainty (read more on how the EU REDD Facility supports local communities’ land tenure in Côte d’Ivoire)
- Bilateral and multilateral climate financing mechanisms should ensure the USD 1.7 billion promised at COP 26 in Glasgow to recognise indigenous and local community land rights is disbursed and spent.
- Countries should be encouraged to include specific and measurable tenure and natural resource rights goals for Indigenous Peoples and local communities in revising their NDCs in 2023 and/or in their implementation plans.
Parties should monitor the development and resulting climate benefits of community-based tenure systems and share their experiences and lessons learnt.
Romuald leads the Facility’s work on sustainable land-use policies in Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. He also contributes to the Facility’s work on public-private partnerships promoting sustainable agricultural production, landscapes and supply chains in Central and West Africa.
Romuald was previously based in Africa, coordinating REDD+ projects for the French NGO Nitidæ. He has also served as a forest technician for the Regional Office for Private Woodland in Normandy, France. He has a background in forestry and integrated land-use planning.
Alice leads the EU REDD Facility’s legal work on land allocation and forest conversion. She also provides technical support on the national climate plans of the Facility’s partner countries.
Before joining the Facility, Alice worked as an environmental lawyer in London. She then followed the international climate change negotiations for over ten years, and consulted for various international NGOs and the United Nations. Alice teaches climate change negotiations at ESADE University in Barcelona.