Vivek Maru and Andy White

Guest Post: A Letter to Rio+20 – Sustainable Development Isn’t Possible Without Land Rights

Approximately 3 billion people in the developing world live without secure legal rights to their lands, forests, and pastures. There is an intimate relationship between stewardship and ownership: We tend to take care of what we know is ours.

For that reason, community land rights should be a key priority in our pursuit of environmentally sustainable development. But these rights are not mentioned in the Zero Draft resolution for the upcoming Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. This is a mistake.

Substantial research now shows that secure community land rights are fundamental to success in slowing deforestation, providing food security, and lifting the poorest people out of poverty. To give just one example, a recent study[1] comparing 80 forest areas in 10 countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America found community-owned forests were five times more likely than state-owned forests to have above-average tree cover and below-average domestic usage of wood. When communities had secure ownership, they chose to conserve.

Yet nearly half the people on Earth are without secure land rights. And more than ever, the lands those people inhabit are in demand. The pace of large-scale land sales surged when food prices spiked in 2007-2008 and, though food prices slowed, the land rush has continued.

In 2009 alone, transactions covering at least 56.6 million hectares were concluded or under negotiation, more than 13 times the average amount of land opened to cultivation annually between 1961 and 2007.[2]

In principle, these transactions have the potential to increase economic productivity and stimulate growth. But when the rights of existing owners are insecure, there is great risk of exploitation and of land use decisions that are not in a nation’s long-term interest. Indeed, recent evidence suggests a race to the bottom: the large-scale acquisitions and concessions are disproportionately concentrated in countries where land rights are weakest.

Companies that seek to take advantage of weak rights regimes—whether inadvertently or intentionally—may do so at the risk of their own bottom lines. When firms consider investments, they should ask governments, “Who owns this land?” and act accordingly. If they fail to do so, they may face both active and passive resistance from the indigenous land owners, which can stall or halt operations, increase costs, and – in the digitally connected world we live in – tarnish a firm’s global reputation.

For cautionary tales, investors might look to the recent experiences of Stora Enso, one of the world’s largest paper companies, and Sime Darby, the Malaysian palm oil giant.

Although Stora Enso has a detailed commitment to social responsibility, a 2010 study of the company’s activities in China showed that middlemen acting on its behalf violated the law and used threats of physical violence to secure land for the company’s eucalyptus plantations.

(Members of the Amazonian municipality of Ilha das Cinzas, Gurupá in Brazil, transport timber from the forest to the saw mill. Photo credit: Luiz Joels Carlos/RRI)

More recently, the government of Liberia entered into an agreement with the palm oil producer Sime Darby that effectively transferred vast lands and natural resources to the company without considering the rights of the communities living on the land. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is now considering community complaints, and the company’s activities are on hold. Sime Darby’s investments and reputation are at risk.

In our work in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, we have found that communities often welcome some form of commercial investment. But they want—and deserve—to be able to shape the terms under which investment takes place.

Most efforts to strengthen land rights involve the titling of individual, household plots. Community land rights deserve special emphasis, however, because starting with the outer boundary of the community makes it possible to protect more land faster, and at a lower cost per hectare. Community land claims also include common resources like forests and water bodies, which are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and yet are left out if one pays exclusive attention to individual holdings.

More than 25 countries have passed laws recognizing community land rights since the first Earth summit in 1992, but implementation has been poor.

Delegates to the second summit should call on governments to adopt and abide by laws recognizing community land rights. Delegates should also call for increased support to communities in documenting their land claims and in strengthening their local systems for land governance.

The Rio earth summit is about finding a harmony between environment and development. Respecting community land rights is essential for both those goals. It is also what justice demands.

Vivek Maru is CEO of the legal empowerment organization Namati. Andy White is the Coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative.

[1] Community owned forests & local participation in rule making linked to significantly lower carbon emissions in a sample of 80 forests in East Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Chaatre and Agrawal, PNAS, 2009. See also:

Multiple use protected areas in Asia & Latin America limited fires more than strictly protected areas. Indigenous territories were much more effective– Nelson and Chomitz, 2011.

Community managed forests presented lower and less variable annual deforestation rates than protected forests – Porter-Bolland, et. al 2011

Indigenous territories limited deforestation much more than strictly protected areas and somewhat more than sustainable use areas. (Remoteness & environmental factors held constant.) – Soares Filho et al, PNAS, 2009.

Nepal: Review of multiple local studies finds fewer fires, higher tree density and diameters, improved forest cover, and less grazing in community forests. Ojha, Persha & Chhatre, IFPRI, 2010

Tanzania: The forest basal areas & volumes improved in a sample of 13 community managed and joint managed forest sites, while they declined in a sample of government forests. – Blomley et al., Oryx, 2008

[2] Rabah Arezki, Klaus Deininger, and Harris Selod, “Global Land Rush,” Finance and Development, March 2012, Vol. 49, No. 1.

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