Who owns the world’s land? Legislation to cement communities’ historic rights stalls | Land Portal
Pauline Kairu
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The report, titled “Who Owns the World’s Land?” is the result of a study that analysed land increases across 73 countries and highlighted increases in 21 countries. Kenya and Liberia were among the countries driving most of the significant gains.

Top five gainers

Kenya was among the top five gainers in land designated for and owned by indigenous peoples, afro-descendant peoples, and local communities 2015–2020, by percent of total country land area, from 6.17 percent to 67.06 percent in 2020 in areas owned by groups. While in Liberia, the numbers increased from 31.73 percent to 72.6 percent.

Other countries in the top five were Panama, Kyrgyzstan and Philippines.

Thanks to Kenya and Liberia, sub-Saharan Africa experienced notable progress regarding legal recognition of community land rights compared with other regions during this time frame.

These countries passed progressive land rights legislation that recognised communities’ historic land rights, irrespective of registration. Other countries like Mali, Mozambique, and Uganda also recognised community ownership of land based on customary occupation.

Uganda is one such country where land area legally recognised as owned by or designated for communities reached 8.9 million hectares (22 million acres) in 2020. However, there were still approximately 0.28 million hectares (0.69 million acres) of community lands where rights were not legally recognized.

Read: BUWEMBO: Uganda’s land belongs to us all, but we are now worried about it

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a new law recognising the rights of Indigenous Pygmy peoples was adopted in 2022 after years of sustained advocacy by community advocates.

The examples set by Kenya and Liberia demonstrate that governments can acknowledge historic land claims before completing time-consuming processes like demarcation and titling. This progressive land rights legislation provides communities with a measure of legal security even during ongoing administrative procedures. However, registration offers additional benefits such as tenure security or recognition of additional land use or management rights — making it a priority for many communities.

Kenya’s Community Land Act grants spouses’ automatic membership to their respective communities until they remarry following divorce from or the death of their spouse.

Similarly, Liberia’s Land Rights Act recognises women’s membership rights based on birth, marriage, and long-term residency while affirming equal rights to the use and management of community land regardless of gender.

Lack of political will

Several other countries took initial steps toward implementing legal frameworks to designate lands for Indigenous Peoples and local communities that previously existed only on paper. For instance, DRC began issuing Local Community Forest Concessions in 2017 based on a decree passed in 2014.

Central African Republic also acknowledged the first community forest in 2019, based on the 2008 Forest Code.

Over the period from 2015 to 2020, new Community-Based Tenure Rights — recognising communities’ ownership of their lands and forests — were established in four countries. Kenya’s Community Land Act alone recognised an estimated 38 million hectares (94 million acres) of community customary land held in trust by county governments until registration is completed.

However, there have been challenges with the registration process for community lands.

RRI coordinator Solange Bandiaky-Badji stressed that these results reflect the advocacy and work undertaken by Indigenous peoples and local communities in pushing forward the recognition of their rights.

However, she said that “only a few countries have made significant efforts toward tenure recognition and leadership in this regard.

The gap is apparent between countries making progress and those where land tenure remains largely unrecognised or under threat.”

“While Kenya published its Community Land Regulations outlining the procedure for community land registrationin2017, the implementation has been slow due to lack of political will, insufficient funding, and capacity. Likewise, Liberia’s Land Rights Act (2018), which recognised community Customary Land Ownership as valid and enforceable without registration, prioritised the recognition of an estimated 7 million hectares (17million acres) of community-owned Customary Land,” said the report.

“Many developing countries are witnessing increased demand for land — including Indigenous lands — and often prioritise sectors that contribute to economic and industrial development or national climate and conservation targets over Indigenous land claims.

This includes initiatives focused on industrial development, energy projects, expanding cropland areas, carbon offset initiatives, wildlife conservation, and more.”

The report also highlights the importance of recognising Indigenous rights in relation to climate change and biodiversity crises. Research has shown that regions where Indigenous land rights are acknowledged often exhibit low rates of deforestation and forest degradation, comparable with protected areas. Indigenous and community land rights are emphasized as key factors for both climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts according to the UN's latest report on climate change. For example, studies have demonstrated that Indigenous protected lands in Brazil’s Amazon play a crucial role in preserving carbon sinks.

While progress is being made regarding the recognition of Indigenous land rights, governments’ interpretations of global climate and conservation commitments, such as the 30 by 30 goal — aiming to conserve 30 percent of Earth’s land and inland water and coastal and marine areas — can impact these rights. Some countries continue planning to increase forest cover but impose restrictions on indigenous and local lands despite the UN global biodiversity framework stressing the importance of respecting these rights.

Countries may introduce laws to restrict resource management in these forests and game protection areas, but critics say that rights limitations still prevail, and local communities' resource management might be confined to reserved forests or national parks.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s Indigenous Peoples Unit considers guaranteed land access as an essential aspect of ensuring the right to food security for indigenous peoples. This was particularly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic: indigenous groups relying on their ancestral food systems on traditional lands were better equipped than those living in peri-urban or urban areas dependent on wages to acquire food.

According to the report land rights is crucial for sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Indigenous communities, when revitalising their culture and worldview, often embody traditional lifestyles and sustainability values — resulting in effective conservation practices.

However, it should be noted that while granting land rights to communities can contribute positively to sustainability, external pressures, poverty, and increased demand for natural resources may lead some communities to engage in unsustainable practices.

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