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Grabbing land to save the planet or using the power of human rights to protect tenure rights?

Responsible land governance for fair transitions

by David Betge; Ilse Pelkmans | 2023-08-01

Grabbing land to save the planet or using the power of human rights to protect tenure rights?

The climate change, development, land tenure nexus was a recurring theme at the IOS Fair Transitions / LandAc conference 2023 in Utrecht, Netherlands from June 28 to 30. Keynotes by Mark Jackson (University of Bristol) and Fatima Denton (UN University) both addressed the pervasiveness of land in its different forms and meanings for many of the current major global debates.

1.2 billion hectares of land have been committed to land-based measures in the context of climate change mitigation; restoration initiatives and biodiversity protection. Land-based measures are therefore at the heart of global environmental efforts. The potential impact of these measures on rights, lives and livelihoods, whether positive or negative, will depend on how these measures are planned and implemented in the near future. It also depends on the global institutions shaping these planning and implementation processes. Currently, there is a strong indication that negative impacts are likely to occur on a significant scale.

Power issues and rights implications loom large

Whether it´s in the context of large-scale infrastructure development or climate change mitigation interventions: land use decisions are negotiated in a situation of highly inequal power relations between national and local governments, private investors, global institutions, and the people depending on the land. Tenure rights of millions of smallholder farmers and pastoralists, women, and indigenous peoples, as well as urban dwellers around the world, whose access to land is not formally recognized and documented, are disregarded. This leads to evictions and other land rights violations that, in turn, result in loss of access to food, housing and income.

TMG discussed these issues in two sessions based on research into the tenure implications of climate change commitments, as well as the recently launched Rights4Land tools. Both sessions sparked dynamic debates among the participants.

Grabbing land to save the planet?

The first session, organised by TMG´s David Betge together with Gemma van de Haar of Wageningen University, centred on the theme: Grabbing land to save the planet? Why we need to safeguard legitimate land tenure rights to stay within 1.5 Degrees and protect biodiversity.

The session addressed the fact that the rights implications and the social and economic consequences of current climate change and biodiversity strategies in the context of the Rio Conventions for millions of people are not sufficiently acknowledged, researched, and addressed.

Building a presentation by David Betge on the state of research, Ana Osuna Orozco of Rainforest Foundation UK and Dominique Schmid of Utrecht University presented case studies about the (mostly negative) impact of forest protection and forest restoration measures in the Congo Basin Rainforest and the Amazon Rainforest.

Finding positive solutions

The participants discussed the urgent need to ramp up public, academic and policy debates about the impact of land-based climate and biodiversity strategies on poor communities and the development trajectories of rural economies. Furthermore, there was agreement that the contributions of local and indigenous communities to climate change mitigation and biodiversity protection need to be acknowledged and enabled based on tenure security. Bottom-up monitoring and reporting tools, including those currently developed by TMG and partners, can be crucial for avoiding unintended negative consequences of climate change mitigation measures and contribute to enabling local and indigenous communities to protect and restore land and forests.

This topic was also addressed in the ensuing session organised by Ilse Pelkmans, together with UN Habitat, titled: The power of human rights to protect tenure rights; fair results through inclusive land governance processes. This session focussed on how to push for inclusive and participatory land governance to increase equality in access to land and its resources, by building on the international human rights framework.

Building on inputs from Fernanda Folster de Paula (University of Campina and the Institute for Social Studies in The Hague), Simon Mwesigye (UN-Habitat Uganda), Christopher Tanner (Senior consultant at Mokoro Ltd. Oxford), and Robert Lewis-Lettington (Chief Land, Housing and Shelter Section at UN-Habitat), the discussion focused on how binding human rights instruments can safeguard tenure rights of people in vulnerable situations and address power imbalances in land governance to ensure fair transitions. Through examples from Brazil, Uganda, Nepal and Timor-Leste, the panel elaborated on questions of how human rights instruments enable people to meaningfully participate in land use decision-making processes and improve their access to non-discriminatory conflict resolution mechanisms, as well as what role formal and informal institutions play in this regard.

Ilse Pelkmans presented the Human Rights 4 Land Monitoring Tool which was developed to assess land governance in specific contexts and address identified gaps by linking to human rights obligations of States. This enables land and human rights actors to hold governments accountable for responsible, human rights-compliant land governance. The importance of data for improved accountability was reiterated by several other sessions of the conference.

Both sessions underlined the relevance and timeliness of TMG´s work on rights-based approaches, data collection for accountability, tenure and climate, and the need to address the challenges posed by land-based interventions in an integrated manner.

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