After three days of intense discussion covering the breadth of land governance issues focusing on the theme of Land, Crisis and Resilience, Dr. Joanny Bélair, Postdoctoral researcher from Utrecht University and LANDac, had the unique opportunity to Chair the closing Session of the LANDac Conference 2021. Closing session panelists were Dr. Caitlin Ryan - Assistant Professor International Security, International Relations and International Organization at the University of Groningen, Gemma Betsema - Programme Advisor LAND-at-scale at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) and Teddy Kisembo from the Urban Action Lab at Makerere University (and also a LANDac fellow). Panelists reflected on the main the takeaways of the LANDac Annual International Conference 2021 and challenges the land governance community will be facing in the coming years.
Gemma Betsema has been working with the Dutch Land-At-Scale program, which is formulating developing land governance projects in close collaboration with local partners in 14 countries. She underscored the importance of looking at land issues from a broader perspective and taking a more holistic approach, noting that this was highlighted in several sessions during the conference, including about the challenges of improving land registration. The Land-At-Scale program is set up to focus on a variety of development goals, including food security, rule of law, private sector development, women's rights, and climate adaptation, emphasizing a combination of different types of expertise in land governance. They are striving to build upon work that has already been done and ongoing projects, such as food security projects that already being funded by Dutch embassies in target countries. The focus on perceived tenure security in the context of crisis, using perception to measure tenure security is very much on their agenda, she said, indicating the importance of moving away from just the numbers of titles.
Teddy Kisembo highlighted that when it comes to land issues, from contestation of land rights to the conversation on public policies, and then how they mingle with traditional systems, public policies should be protecting tenure security. This has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a great number of vulnerable people experiencing negative impacts during the lockdown, as land administrative services were shut down. Thankfully, she said, there have been some enlightened land rights defenders standing up for land rights during this period. This crisis has shown there is a need to move away from paper systems, but also that going digital is not a magic bullet. Open data and access to information are important, she stressed, but for the urban poor even open systems are unlikely to be accessible to them, so she pointed out that the benefits are likely to be accrued by other, more privileged actors. There is a need to build bridges between formal and informal systems of managing land within the African context, but this cannot be done only through formalization, she said. The commodification of land will lead to an increase in inequality, so there is a need to look at how to redefine land governance strategies that work for the people.
Dr. Caitlin Ryan said that the multiple and intertwining crises should not be redefining of how we think about land issues because this suggests that these events, whether they be climate change, climate catastrophe or COVID-19, are a moment of rupture in an otherwise forward moving trajectory. All of the inequalities that have been discussed existed before the pandemic, she said. This is indicative of a a particular blindness, whether that be willful or unintentional, to how people at the margins already experienced these inequalities. People who have experienced marginality and exclusion, she emphasized, were painfully aware of these inequalities. From her perspective, thinking about the current times in terms of crisis or as sudden moment of rupture with a forward moving trajectory will not get us anywhere. The result is getting sidetracked from what, what has been going on all along and how to address the root of the inequalities and structural exclusions that have always been there. Dr. Ryan encouraged instead consideration of what are normal and exceptional politics and what is acceptable when the Global North is not in crisis.
Continuing on the question of what normal politics is, Teddy Kisembo said that she has realized that considering land issues in Africa, one needs look at the past and see where they emerged. In the context of Uganda, land issues can only be understood through the lens of colonial times, which has a great impact on tenure security. There is a need to learn from the mistakes that have been made, and especially regarding land management and administration, which is rooted in the past. We also need to understand the relationship between our land, income inequality, and the effects of gender and cultural norms when it comes to land governance, and to explore ways to get past that, she indicated. In Uganda and Africa in general, women are discriminated both in terms of access to land and access to information, she highlighted, suggesting that we need to look at the cultural norms of a particular region and understand the context, as even some women are not willing to embrace their right to own property.
Dr. Ryan then proposed that the most pressing challenge is the tenacity of capitalism as an economic model that privileges profit. There are mounting pressures on communities to commodify their land, and there are unfortunately no neat divisions between international investors and local communities, as national elites also play a large role in this process. Conservation efforts are also increasingly plugged into profit models such as REDD+ or other models of conservation that are directly linked to profit, she suggested. Moreover, clean energy solutions often relay on the land and resources of communities that are already at the margins. “Powers in the Global North are now using this language of crisis to enact further domination of people and the planet,” she said.
Without entering the questioning of the entire economic order, Gemma Betsema indicated that to build something that remains after project funding ends, it is important build on existing networks in the country, and to take advantage of the best policies and practices while moving away from what has shown not to be working. She called attention to the importance of doing thorough stakeholder assessments to see who's already working in the country, and to found out how they can add value to what is already being done. For RVO, considering historical factors is also very important for them. They strive to be as flexible and as adaptive as possible with project partners to ensure the sustainability of what they are doing and recognizing the need to understand how to work in governance systems that may be broken.
Dr. Gemma van der Haar from Wageningen University and Co-Chair of LANDac closed out the conference, highlighting that the pandemic intersects with concerns over climate change deepening poverty and the reproduction of inequalities. The pandemic, she said, has revealed cracks in the system, disrupted our routines and challenged our reflections. We have been able to make new connections between work on conflict, disaster and climate change, but also the chronic crisis of inequality.