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What on Earth is ‘land tenure’?

© Cristina Mittermeier

Editor’s note:From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?”

In this installment, we break down “land tenure,” a concept with major implications for conservation.

What is land tenure?

At its most basic, “land tenure” refers to the rights of people or communities to manage (own and use) the land that they reside on.

Meaning, if you reside on the land, you get to have control over managing it?

Sort of — it’s not that simple. In some places in the world, it’s not easy to ascertain who has the right to manage land, or even who has the right to live there. Many indigenous groups, for example, live on lands that are governed not by formal laws but by informal “customary” agreements — their historical, even ancient, association with the land is the basis of their “right” to manage it. This lack of formal, legally binding land rights can expose these communities to risks.

What kinds of risks?

Here’s a simplistic example. Say there’s a community in a remote area surrounded by forests. They’ve managed the forest for centuries; they derive their food, their livelihoods, even their spiritual beliefs from the forest. But one day the government wants to dam a nearby river; or a timber company wants to begin logging in the area; or a neighboring community wants to expand their farms into the forest. Even if there is legal recognition of the forest community’s tenure through their ancestral links to the area, if there is no legal protection to back it up, the community can be powerless to prevent incursions on it. As a result, their well-being, livelihoods and culture can be eroded.

Why are there no legal protections in these places?

There are a number of reasons. Westerners take it for granted, but establishing and enforcing formal rights over land is not always easy. In countries with weak institutions, less effective governments, or shoddy record-keeping, it can be a struggle to settle who controls what in the face of competing interests, conflict, and ethnic or cultural differences.

Other questions abound. How do you establish land tenure for indigenous groups that are nomadic? How do you undo potentially destructive laws that a colonizing country put in place but are now part of your country’s legal system? How do you settle land tenure in places as vast and inaccessible as the Amazon rainforest, where national laws struggle to reach?

I see. So it’s not as simple as applying for a land title in these places.  

Exactly — in many places, there is no infrastructure set up to establish or enforce “ownership” of land, which a land title would confer. Recent evidence suggests that communities the world over face a growing number of bureaucratic and technical obstacles to land ownership. But it gets even more complicated when you consider the fact that for some rural and indigenous communities, the concept of land ownership doesn’t exist as we understand it in the West.

What do you mean?

“To many indigenous peoples, ownership doesn’t have the same meaning,” explains Minnie Degawan, director of Conservation International’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program. “Some of them might say, ‘It’s not we who own the land; it’s the land that owns us.’ ”

How do you establish and enforce land tenure in situations like that?

It’s challenging, but there are a number of efforts being made through governments, international organizations and even global policy processes. There are too many to list here, but it’s safe to say that issues of land tenure are at the forefront of global discussions around development and the environment.

What does this have to do with the environment?

A lot, as it turns out.

For one, traditional indigenous territories hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. You want to protect that biodiversity, you need to work with them: Indigenous peoples and local communities tend to have deep roots in their lands, and as such they develop an intimate knowledge of how best to protect and manage it.

Second, these territories are also crucial for fighting climate change — protecting tropical forests, for example, can provide 30 percent or more of the greenhouse-gas emission abatement needed to halt climate change. So it is in everyone’s interest that the people who live in these forests have stable land tenure, because they’re going to be the ones taking care of them.

So strengthening land tenure can help conserve nature?

It appears so. Studies have shown that areas under the secure management of indigenous peoples are typically better protected and better managed than those under government control. But indigenous communities can also suffer from conservation efforts if they’re not done carefully.

Further reading

How so?

Unfortunately, over the years some conservation efforts have essentially kicked indigenous and rural communities off their lands in order to “protect” nature, in effect creating conservation refugees.

Yikes. How do we avoid that?

Governments, development agencies and conservation organizations need to respect indigenous rights and to work directly with indigenous peoples and local communities to ensure that well-meaning conservation initiatives help to secure land tenure, not degrade it.

That said, many conservation organizations are working closely with indigenous communities to help define what tenure looks like, mixing traditional ways and newer legal systems, Degawan says. This mix of old and new is becoming more prominent, she explains: Some indigenous tribes, in fact, are now actively seeking legal land ownership not because they believe in it but because they want a legally recognized and binding mechanism that ensures they can stay on their land.

What is happening with respect to land tenure and conservation?

Things are looking up.

Places like Bolivia and the Philippines have begun land titling, Degawan says. Kenya recently enacted laws to enable land titling. Even in highly developed Scotland, the country’s unique and controversial system of land ownership is changing.

Stronger tenure can lead to better outcomes for conservation. A case in point: In Ecuador, land tenure is a linchpin of the Socio Bosque program, a successful initiative (developed in part by Conservation International) to pay local people to conserve their forests. To help the program succeed, the government stepped in to help determine tenure where it wasn’t clear.

Global policy processes including the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) actively address issues of land tenure, and a growing number of conservation initiatives are putting money to protect certain areas directly into the hands of the people who live there.

Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director.

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Cover image: Kayapó woman. The Kayapó people maintain legal control over an area of 10.6 million hectares (around 26 million acres) of primary tropical forest and savanna in the southeastern Amazon region of Brazil. (© Cristina Mittermeier)