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Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Voluntary Guidelines on Tenure (VGGT)

A Decade of the CFS VGGT: assessing progress and enhancing accountability

by Frederike Klümper and Ilse Pelkmans | 2022-10-18

Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Voluntary Guidelines on Tenure (VGGT)

“There is no system change, without a shift of power” (Annalisa Mauro, ILC)

A decade following their endorsement by the members of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) remain an important reference document for strengthening legitimate tenure rights. Against a backdrop of accelerating land degradation and climate change, and a multitude of interrelated global crises, it is even more necessary and urgent that diminishing natural resources are managed responsibly for the benefit of people and planet.

As part of the recently concluded 50th session of the CFS (CFS 50), the Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equality Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) organized a two-day technical discussion to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the CFS VGGT. The event was co-organized with diverse partners, including the International Land Coalition, Welthungerhilfe, TMG Research, Land Portal Foundation, the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), and the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD).

While celebrating this important anniversary, the discussions also posed a number of open questions. Why has the implementation of the VGGT been so slow in some places and so far advanced in others? What have we learned about the challenges, but also about the factors that enable wider acceptance? Where do we need to go next to ensure that the VGGT become better embedded in other processes to address food insecurity and poverty, and advance sustainable development for all?

This brief article provides some highlights of the discussions and debates during the event to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the CFS VGGT on 6 and 7 October 2022.

Losing or seizing momentum?

This was a key concern and motivation for participants as they reflected on the application of the VGGT. Despite progress made, there are still challenges due to political, economic, and social asymmetries, and a slow uptake of certification, noted land governance expert, Marc Wegerif. He stressed the importance of learning from experience as one way of motivating rights holders and duty bearers to engage in dialogue to overcome the challenges. Concurring that the lessons learned so far also offer new opportunities, Annalisa Mauro of the International Land Coalition discussed how we can create new spaces for strengthening legitimate tenure rights, noting this also goes hand in hand with the recognition of tenure diversity.

While acknowledging the positive impact of the VGGT at the local level, Benjamin Davis, Director of FAO's Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equality Division, cautioned that we are not doing a good job so far in monitoring the application of the Guidelines, which could contribute to losing momentum. “If we focus on better integrating the VGGT into broader development efforts, we should be able to reap the benefits of the VGGT,” he concluded.

The right to land versus the right to access to land

This enduring question was discussed from many different perspectives. Various IPC representatives made a strong case for explicitly mentioning “right to land” in policies and strategies. Robert Lewis-Lettington, from UN Habitat/Global Land Tool Network, was more hesitant about using the term “right to land,” pointing to the many dimensions involved in land rights. Instead, he preferred to focus on “access to land,” as an essential component for achieving and maintaining human dignity. The discussions further highlighted that while the VGGT are not a binding legal framework, they were one of the main inspirations for the draft General Comment on Land by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, due to be finalized in October 2022.

Mainstreaming land tenure, versus land tenure as a stand-alone goal

The reflection process further revealed that mainstreaming of land tenure could fundamentally change the debate on land rights. For instance, should tenure security be treated as a goal in its own right, or as a means to achieve other global goals and targets, for instance those linked to the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and its associated SDGs? Some held the view that “mainstreaming” land tenure in other governance processes could strip the VGGT of their power. In this context, Sasha Alexander, UNCCD Policy Officer, provided a deep dive into the rationale behind the UNCCD's landmark decision on land tenure. The evidence is clear, he stressed: land degradation-neutral landscapes cannot be achieved without securing legitimate land tenure rights. He added that the land tenure decision leads to a rethinking of national target setting programmes by including land tenure as a crucial element. The discussions further pointed out the potential impact if the other sister “Rio Conventions” (on climate change and biodiversity) take a similar approach to linking land tenure and the VGGT within their respective action programmes. A Technical Guide on integrating the VGGT into the implementation of the UNCCD, developed by the FAO and UNCCD, with input from diverse technical agencies and civil society organizations, offers a number of action-oriented pathways to support the adaptation and upscaling of rights-based land restoration programmes in different contexts.

Towards more robust implementation of the VGGT

The central role of data and monitoring for securing land tenure rights was another central theme of the discussion. In a session led by Daniel Hayward, a Country Research and Engagement Consultant at Land Portal, participants grappled with challenging questions about monitoring multilateral development mandates and the use of data for this purpose. Francesco Pierri from FAO's Land Tenure Team spoke on the difficulty of accessing disaggregated land data, especially regarding land inequality. FAO, ILC, UN -Habitat and CIRAD highlighted how a new tool, the Global Land Observatory (GLO), could contribute towards closing the data gap. The GLO aims to offer a coordinated response by building on existing indicators, with a focus on land tenure security, land governance and land inequality.

Observing that most discussions on land data remain uncoordinated, take place in silos, and exclude grassroots voices, the Land Portal’s Laura Meggiolaro welcomed increased attention generated by SDG monitoring indicators. Frederike Klümper, TMG Research, emphasized the importance of data generated at the local level, and highlighted a decentralized land tenure mapping process developed by TMG that has been applied in Benin, Malawi, Madagascar, and Kenya. She discussed the value of this approach in strengthening locally-led monitoring of national and global level policy processes, such as the UNCCD decision on land tenure. She added that by involving communities in the entire data process, such co-creation approaches can be a powerful tool to strengthen the application of the VGGT.

Beyond data access: why we need more accountability

The critical role of accountability was a key thread throughout the two-day event. Introducing this discussion on the first day, Adriano Campolina, Senior Policy Officer at FAO, emphasized that increased accountability of governments is a prerequisite for revitalizing the VGGT. To make this happen, we need to change the narrative, beyond providing “ownership” towards a focus on safeguarding tenure rights, he said. During a closing session building on this theme, organized by TMG Research, the discussions focused on who and what can be the best leverage to hold governments accountable for implementing the VGGT.

Jes Weigelt, Head of Programmes at TMG, opened the discussions by reaffirming the human rights base of the VGGT. Despite their voluntary nature, each VGGT principle is rooted in binding human rights principles and standards, he stressed. Hence, VGGT implementation requires alignment with States' obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. Given that weak accountability structures often hamper the full implementation of the VGGT, using a rights-based approach to promote responsible land governance can be a powerful starting point to contribute to greater accountability.

This point was taken up by Ilse Pelkmans, TMG Research Associate, at TMG Research, who highlighted the human rights underpinnings of the VGGT, and the potential to support greater scrutiny of governments, the private sector, conservationists, and other actors in the land sector. Being assured that land claims are underpinned by human rights can empower rights holders to hold those in power accountable to implement the VGGT and secure their tenure rights. Daniela Vega, (IPC / CLOC-LVC, Alianza CIP) emphasized the importance of raising awareness at local level and mobilizing communities to claim their rights and increase pressure on governments to secure tenure rights.

There are many actors working to protect and enforce legitimate land rights, including government agencies, local CSOs, international organizations, and land rights defenders. Collaborative efforts are needed to strengthen accountability from different perspectives, but there are also many examples of good practice already in place. Kate Chibwana, ILC Malawi observed that the critical role of traditional leaders is often neglected, despite their potential to be an important lever for strengthening accountability, for example through their role in clarifying tenure rights and mediating in land conflicts.

The second part of the session took the perspective of duty bearers and those who enable accountability, with contributions from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), the Ministry of Lands of Sierra Leone, the CFS Secretariat and FAO.

Chiara Cirulli explained that the voluntary nature of the VGGT means that the ability of the CFS to hold member states accountable is currently limited. The approach taken so far is to promote the implementation of the VGGT and organize "mutual learning moments" to generate peer pressure – such as the Global Thematic Events on the VGGT in 2016 or Voluntary National Reports submitted to the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). She noted that this issue of whether the CFS “can do more" or work differently to hold members accountable will be tabled at the 2023 CFS strategy session, with one of the agenda points to be a discussion on whether we need a follow up Global Learning Event on the VGGT, since the last one was in 2016.

Francesco Carranza, FAO, explained that improved accountability requires multiple factors to be in place: communities need to have the capacity to face private sector and governments to stand up for their rights. Power imbalances within local communities need to be addressed, Transparent processes for Free Prior and Informed Consent need to be in place. Access to justice needs to be guaranteed by strengthening the legal system and training judges. Where there is political will to work on these aspects, FAO provides support. Adriano Campolina, FAO, emphasized that collective action is needed to hold governments accountable and to achieve rights.

Sara Ferraú, BMEL, acknowledged that states have the obligation to build an enabling environment for protecting rights and for rightsholders to claim these rights. She highlighted how Germany’s strong law-making processes assure the inclusion of rights holders’ voices and interests and enable land users to go to court if their rights are infringed upon. She also mentioned the example of the working group that was put in place by the German Government, consisting of around 80 people working on land governance issues, that allows citizens to hold the government accountable for the implementation of the VGGT in Germany.

Closing the session, Moderator Jes Weigelt, TMG, referenced a quote by A. Hunt, as cited in analysis of South Africa’s land reform process (IDS): “Rights take shape and are constituted by and through struggle. Thus, they have the capacity to be elements of emancipation, but they are neither a perfect nor exclusive vehicle for emancipation. Rights can only be operative as constituents of a strategy of social transformation as they become part of an emergent 'common sense' and are articulated within social practices.... They articulate a vision of entitlements, of how things might be, which in turn has the capacity to advance political aspiration and action”

Ultimately, as highlighted by many speakers over the two days, strengthening responsible governance of tenure requires system-wide transformation, and this cannot happen without a shift of power.

Edited by Wangu Mwangi

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