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News & Events Land Rights, Migration, and Deforestation in Tropical Commodity Production
Land Rights, Migration, and Deforestation in Tropical Commodity Production
Land Rights, Migration, and Deforestation in Tropical Commodity Production

Addressing the land and conservation communities’ discomfort in discussing the relationships between migrants, Indigenous peoples, and tropical forests in the fight against climate change.

The global conversation around land tenure is increasingly centered on two imperatives. The first is the need, eloquently expressed in the media in recent months, to secure land rights for Indigenous people and local communities against large-scale land acquisitions by agribusinesses and governments. This approach has been shown to be highly effective as part of the broader effort to protect primary forests, a critical front in the fight against a climate catastrophe. Second, secure and equitable land tenure is a solution to one of the root causes of climate migration from the Global South to rich countries, as organizations like Landesa have argued. While the emergence of these two imperatives is welcome, I am struck by the lack of discussion about the links between migration, land rights, and deforestation. Migration (for economic or environmental reasons) pushes people to seek their livelihoods elsewhere, in urban and rural areas, nationally and abroad. In many parts of the world (see below), these new livelihoods have included clearing tropical forests to grow commodity crops like rubber and cocoa, often leading to tensions over land-use change and land ownership with Indigenous communities. Clarifying land tenure arrangements in forested areas is thus an urgent need for both Indigenous communities and migrant populations is an urgent need for those working to uphold Indigenous land rights, respect the human rights of migrants, prevent further deforestation, and thus mitigate a global wave of climate migration.


A fraught history

I have been thinking about this dynamic as part of my Leland International Hunger Fellowship with the World Cocoa Foundation in Côte d’Ivoire. WCF has been collaborating with the Ivoirian government, WCF’s cocoa and chocolate member companies, donors, and service providers to help customary rightsholders (usually Indigenous people) obtain land certificates securing those rights. Migrant farmers are simultaneously supported in signing land-use contracts with those customary rightsholders to secure their access to land. Cocoa companies, relying on value chains composed almost exclusively of smallholders, are concerned about land tenure insecurity in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana for both business and sustainability reasons. Insecure tenure makes farmers reluctant to make productivity-enhancing investments in, for example, soil conservation. They are also less likely to plant and conserve non-cocoa agroforestry trees that provide shade, species diversity, and alternative revenue sources. Companies have made large commitments to invest in agroforestry to conserve and restore West Africa’s depleted forests as part of their involvement in the Cocoa & Forests Initiative.


This work is complicated by a delicate history. After winning independence in 1960, the post-colonial government encouraged large-scale migration from Burkina Faso, Mali, and other regions of Côte d’Ivoire to cocoa-growing zones in the south and west as part of the cocoa and other cash crop boom that made up the Ivoirian “Economic Miracle” in the 1970s, when GDP grew by an average of 7.3% per year. The same policies also contributed (alongside agribusinesses’ activities) to the country losing 90% of its forest cover. The government’s role in the origin of Côte d’Ivoire’s tense migrant-Indigenous dynamic is, unfortunately, not a unique one. This is similar to the legal and financial backing provided by national governments to migrant soy farmers from southern Brazil involved in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and to migrant palm oil farmers from Java involved in deforestation in the outer islands of Indonesia. These policies resulted in the dispossession of Indigenous communities from their land.


That said, migrants and Indigenous peoples have long found ways to live peacefully together. In May, I spoke with leaders of migrant and Indigenous communities on a visit to a community in the southwestern department of Méagui in Côte d’Ivoire. In Méagui, Burkinabé, Baoulé, and Malian migrants farm cash crops on land they obtained from the Indigenous Bakwé people, who are now a minority of the population. Many of the key ingredients were present: Parents neglect to write down land-use agreements, and their children then call the agreement into question after their deaths. Young Bakwé people returning to the community after looking for work in the big cities are frustrated that their parents have invited the outsiders to farm. Deforestation means that there is relatively little productive land in the community, and the scarcity creates competition. Migrants also live in unofficial encampments far from the official Indigenous village, making intercommunal communication during land disputes critical to preventing violent misunderstandings exacerbated by the communities’ lack of daily interactions. And yet, Méagui showed a promising example of how migrants and Indigenous people can live together. Most migrants obtained their land through customary traditions involving the sharing of a portion of agricultural produce between a farmer and landowner (abusan), or the formal sponsorship by a Bakwé rightsholder of a migrant farmer in exchange for ceremonial or financial gestures of gratitude (tutorat). Migrants and Bakwé participate actively on a Village Land Tenure Committee. Both groups agreed that conflicts were rare.


Climate complications

As elsewhere, climate change’s effects are complicating the migrant-Indigenous dynamic. While the mass intra-  and inter-national movement of people to forest frontiers, and associated deforestation, was not primarily caused by climate change, there is evidence that the changing climate has been a contributing factor to migration in Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, and Brazil. The UN’s International Organization for Migration projects that 200 million climate migrants will leave their homes by 2050. Migration for environmental and economic security will continue to have an impact on the production of what the World Resources Institute cites as “the seven agricultural commodities — cattle, oil palm, soy, cocoa, rubber, coffee and plantation wood fiber — that made up 26% of global tree cover loss from 2001 to 2015…  on an area of land more than twice the size of Germany”. It’s difficult to predict exactly which of these commodities’ production zones will attract migrants in the future, especially as climate change shifts the ranges where crops like cocoa and coffee can be grown. That said, reduced economic opportunities elsewhere will likely continue to push migrant families to the forest frontier, regardless of whether this is supported by governments.


Still, given the historic role of migration in commodity-driven deforestation, the critical importance of forest conservation in avoiding the worst-case climate scenarios, and the mountain of evidence advanced by land rights advocates for the key role of community land rights in protecting forests, why hasn’t there been greater attention to the nexus of land rights, migration, and forest conservation? Three factors seem to be impeding a much-needed debate:


First, Indigenous and migrant communities are both undeniably vulnerable, though for different reasons. For many land and forest conservation advocates, it is a matter of justice to champion the rights of Indigenous communities to their ancestral lands and forests, and for migrant families to be treated with fairness and respect in the places they arrive. But what if these two goals are sometimes in conflict? It is simpler to imagine a system in which Indigenous communities, companies, and governments are the only actors contesting forest land - to be sure, this is part of why securing Indigenous land rights remains so vital. But it is uncomfortable to imagine scenarios in which migrants and Indigenous people may be living in tension over land tenure, and so our collective approach has been to ignore that it is happening altogether. This is a disservice to both groups, because economic migrants and their descendants have been farming on the forest frontier in countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Indonesia for generations now; while the circumstances in which they arrived often involved violation of community land rights by national governments, we cannot simply pretend that they are not there.


Second, there seems to be an assumption in civil society and academia that the land tenure of Indigenous peoples and migrants is a binary question, with one community benefiting from the land and the other excluded. This betrays a lack of imagination. When two people share an orange, they could cut it in half. But they might also find that one is interested in the juice, and the other in the zest, eliminating any conflict. My time in Méagui showed me that these communities can and live peacefully together. But under economic and environmental pressure, conflict between migrants and the Indigenous people over scarce land and ambiguous land-use agreements is equally real. It is thus urgent that land rights be formalized in a way that respects customary systems, national legal frameworks, and the rights of migrants.


Finally, the conservation community is comfortable talking about climate change as something that pushes people away from forests, but not as something that pulls people to migrate into them. Perhaps we fear that this means stigmatizing migrants as complicit actors in deforestation. But Côte d’Ivoire’s story is not one of migrant populations fueling climate change and deforestation - it is the story of a systemic failure to respond to their economic and ecological needs. This failure begins with the lack of realistic paths for land access for migrants in rural areas, including those owned by Indigenous peoples. As research from Côte d’Ivoire, Brazil, and Indonesia shows, lack of land access opportunities in rural areas for migrants drives deforestation - it is often easier to secure land rights by clearing new land than to negotiate any form of access to land already in production. This is not to suggest that migrants should have full private ownership rights on Indigenous land, unless they acquired it via free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). However, it does mean that there is an urgent need for mechanisms that facilitate migrants’ access to Indigenous land to avoid conflict and deforestation.


Bridging the gap

Donors, companies, and governments have a clear path forward in balancing the human and land rights of Indigenous and migrant populations:

  • Community land documentation projects need to acknowledge the migrants living alongside the Indigenous, and the fact that “local” communities might not be homogenous. They should do this by providing grievance mechanisms, alternatives for conflict resolution, and clear protocols for determining the validity of migrant families’ claims to land in question in accordance with national and international law. Companies, donors, and governments must invest in supporting these measures.
  • Laudable community protection and responsible investment efforts by the FAO, OHCHR, Tenure Facility, Just Rural Transition, the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, Oxfam, and other leading organizations should be revised to include clear standards for the documentation, transfer, and adjudication of migrants’ land claims vis-à-vis governments, Indigenous communities, and private sector actors. This also means differentiating between pastoralist migrants, urban-to-rural migrants, rural-to-rural migrants, and rural-to-urban migrants. Leading migration organizations like the IOM and its affiliates should also be involved.
  • We need to define codes of conduct for private companies impacting migrants’ land rights, especially for those working in smallholder-dominated, labor-intensive value chains that do not involve typically large agricultural concessions, like cocoa, coffee, and rubber. Standards like the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure are an important step, but they rarely mention migrants and provide no guidance to the private sector in its relationships with smallholders’ land rights when companies are not acquiring them. Commodity prices, extension support, labor arrangements, and the presence or absence of support for alternative livelihoods to cash crop farming all have a direct bearing on landowners’ and users’ decision-making around their land, and this is a gap in existing frameworks.
  • All actors should recognize and think carefully about the risks in altering the status quo when formalizing and documenting land rights. Organizations need to be fair in determining when migrants have freely and fairly acquired access, harvest, or ownership rights, even in areas where there is tension over land between communities. We should also be careful not to assume that people have the same needs from their land. A recent paper from Indonesia suggests that one possibility lies in emphasizing communities’ shared identity around the places they live.
  • We need further research on the nexus between climate-related migration, deforestation, and land tenure insecurity, particularly in production areas for the Big 7 commodities listed above. The direction of causality among these issues is not always clear, but better understanding how they relate to one another is imperative.


Creating sustainable land systems that recognize the ancestral rights of Indigenous peoples while facilitating access to that land for migrants is possible. Above all, we need to continue this conversation. If we are going to avoid the worst-case climate scenarios, obtain land justice for Indigenous communities, and respect the rights of migrants, we need to confront the linkages between these issues.



Daniel Myers, Leland International Hunger Fellow, World Cocoa Foundation