From 2009 until 2015, Namati and its partners Centro Terra Viva (CTV) in Mozambique, the Land and Equity Movement in Uganda (LEMU), and the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in Liberia supported more than 140 communities to document and protect their customary land rights. Namati, its partners, and community members themselves have been inspired by how powerful and impactful these processes have proven to be: community members have enacted rules to hold corrupt local leaders accountable, to encourage sustainable natural resource management, strengthen women’s land rights and participation in land governance, and they have mapped their land. Real, positive, and wide-spread changes have occurred. But these changes were internal to the communities’ own functioning.
So, in 2017 Namati and its partners, set out to assess whether the work that was carried our protected communities from external threats to their land rights. We designed a study to see if preventative community land protection gave communities a stronger position when potential investors approached communities seeking their lands and natural resources. Did knowing their rights and/or having legal documents for their land give them a firm base upon which to deny investors’ requests or give their free, prior, informed consent after formal consultations?
The results, captured in a new report, were surprising and led to a great deal of reflection about how to better support communities when their land rights are threatened. Of the 61 communities assessed in Mozambique, Uganda, and Liberia, approximately 50% had been approached by outside actors seeking community lands and natural resources since completing their land protection efforts. In nearly 70% of the instances described, the community either accepted the investor’s request or reported that they were “not consulted” or “were forced” to accept the request. Not one of these communities signed a contract or was left with a written copy of any agreements.
Overall, the stories recounted by the communities clearly show how, on their own, community land protection initiatives, as they were implemented in Liberia, Mozambique, and Uganda, did not adequately balance the significant power asymmetries inherent in interactions between rural communities and government officials, whether they are coming on their own behalf or accompanying potential investors. These outcomes were prevalent despite community members’ articulation that they knew their legal rights in such situations – and were the same independent of whether or not the community had a formal government-issued document for its land rights (Mozambique); had legal private ownership under law (Uganda); or fought the land grab, seeking external support from NGOs and political representatives (Liberia).
Together, the communities’ stories illustrate how government officials leverage their power and influence to override citizens’ land rights in order to:
- Claim land owned by villagers for state projects without paying compensation;
- Support bad faith land grabs/dubious “consultations” for international investors; and
- Facilitate land grabs for investments that they or their families/cohorts have a personal stake in.
Perhaps Namati and its partners should not have been surprised: decades of evidence from around the world have shown how governments can issue a community land title with one hand, then claim that land—often violently, or in bad faith—with the other. In Brazil, Guatemala, the Philippines, and many other countries, land defenders are being killed at unprecedented rates for trying to protect their natural resources. The human population has doubled in the past 30 years: billions more humans on the planet means fiercer competition for increasingly scarce lands, water, trees, and minerals. As these resources grow in value, those with money, power, and force will increasingly try to claim the lands of rural villagers. In the years to come, it is likely that we will only see escalating violence and conflict over land and water.
So where does that leave rural communities—especially rural communities living in countries with high levels of corruption and weak rule of law? It is necessary to support communities to advocate for changes in law and government, and to protect the lands and ecosystems that they have been stewarding and tending for generations. It is also critical that national governments, civil society actors, foundations, multilateral and bilateral institutions, and the media more effectively support rural communities’ land rights. First and foremost, this means creating and funding national and international cadres of well-trained, pro bono lawyers, paralegals, and advocates available to support communities navigating complex interactions with companies and powerful government officials. Other recommendations include:
- Establishing community-investor advice hotlines and emergency response protocols that enable communities to seek and receive immediate legal advice and support when they are first approached by an outside actor seeing community lands and natural resources.
- Undertaking policy advocacy to ensure that national laws mandate that no community-investor deal is valid unless it has been recorded in writing and documented in a signed contract that has been reviewed and witnessed by an attorney representing the community.
- Providing intensive training for government officials at every level of government.
- Sensitizing investors to the significant negative financial impacts of a failure to properly carry out community consultations and secure communities’ free, prior, informed consent.
- Funding international and national media to expose land grabs by high-level government and military officials and their family members.
- Passing national equivalents of international laws that have proven to support transparent, good-faith investments on community lands.
With renewed focus, decisive action, and more legal support, it is possible to shift the power dynamics inherent in community interactions with outside actors and ensure that communities remain on their lands, growing and prospering —with or without external investment, according to their own self-defined goals and future vision. Namati and its current partners in Kenya and Sierra Leone have already begun to integrate some of these recommendations into their current community land protection efforts and have already seen evidence that communities are more empowered to resist unjust land grabs and acquisitions.
Rachael Knight was the director of Namati’s Community Land Protection Program from 2011 – 2017 and currently works as an independent consultant and a Senior Associate at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). You can learn more about Namati’s land and environmental justice work here.