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Library Scramble for Land Rights: Reducing Inequity between Communities and Companies

Scramble for Land Rights: Reducing Inequity between Communities and Companies

Scramble for Land Rights: Reducing Inequity between Communities and Companies

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Date of publication
December 2018
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Community land, crucial to rural livelihood around the world, is increasingly targeted by commercial interests. Its loss can lead to environmental degradation, increased rural poverty and land disputes that last for years. Without formal legal recognition of their land rights, communities struggle to protect their land from being allocated to outside investors.
This report reveals endemic challenges facing communities across 15 countries. Procedures to register and document their customary land rights are complex, difficult and costly, requiring communities to sacrifice time, finances and customary land and resources.
As a result, it can take decades for communities to formalize their land rights. In the Philippines, the process requires 56 legally mandated steps; in Indonesia, 21 different government entities were involved.
In comparison, companies acquire formal land rights relatively quickly. Some companies take shortcuts to acquire land or begin commercial operations before obtaining final approvals. Few laws require foreign investors to engage in meaningful community consultation. This disadvantages more responsible companies and risks displacing communities.
To level the playing field between communities and companies, this report calls on countries to establish accessible and transparent community procedures that recognize all customary land, mitigate associated land conflicts, coordinate implementation and budgetary support for community land formalization, and better monitor company compliance.
Indigenous and community lands, crucial for rural livelihoods, are typically held under informal customary arrangements. This can leave the land vulnerable to outside commercial interests, so communities may seek to formalize their land rights in a government registry and obtain an official land document. But this process is time-consuming and complex, and in contrast, companies can acquire land relatively quickly and find shortcuts around regulatory burdens. This report maps these inequities between communities and companies, and offers recommendations on how to level the playing field.

Land Rights in Context

As global demand for foods, fuels, minerals, fibers, wood products, and other natural resources grows, both large and small-scale land acquisitions are on the rise around the world. Companies and investors are scrambling to acquire land and secure it for long periods of time. As this competition intensifies, land that communities (including Indigenous Peoples) hold under customary tenure is vulnerable to acquisition by powerful political and economic elites, particularly if it is not entered in a government registry (cadastre) or officially documented (land certificate or title). Against this backdrop, communities across Africa, Latin America, and Asia are mobilizing to formalize their customary rights and better protect their land. The stakes are high, given that as many as 2.5 billion people depend heavily on community land for subsistence. And while the drivers of socioeconomic inequality (and the resulting unequal opportunities and treatments) vary by country and over time, land inequality largely drives income inequality in Latin America and is a growing factor in some Asian and African countries.

Governments often consider community land, especially the land managed as common property (e.g., forests, pastures, and wetlands), to be vacant, idle, and underused. For many, the promise of economic growth and needed foreign exchange trumps community land rights and justifies allocating this land to companies for investment purposes. In addition to this bias, there are often inequities between legal procedures that govern acquisition of formal land rights by communities and by companies, as well as in how these procedures are implemented.

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