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The race to net zero: Balancing between ecosystem restoration and safeguarding legitimate land rights?

A summary of the GLF Africa session: Our Landscape, Our Rights, Our Investment

The race to net zero: Balancing between ecosystem restoration and safeguarding legitimate land rights?

There is a reluctance to address land tenure issues in restoration programmes because they’re seen to be political and cumbersome. But if they’re not progressively addressed, restoration programmes run the risk of violating human rights. We also miss out on creating incentives for communities to invest in restoration.

Jes Weigelt, Head of Programmes, TMG Research

Proposals on how to accelerate the transition to a “net zero” world rarely consider where the vast tracts of land needed for afforestation and landscape restoration, biofuel production, and so on, will come from. It is often assumed that restoration programmes will be undertaken on marginal or degraded land targeted that is otherwise not in use. In reality, millions of smallholder farmers, pastoralists, forest-dependent communities, and other land users derive their livelihood from such landscapes.

How to manage this somewhat uneasy balancing act between restoration targets and the livelihood needs and tenure rights of local communities was at the heart of discussions at a session hosted by TMG Research at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) Africa Digital Conference on 15 September 2022. Titled, “Our Landscape, Our Rights, Our Investment,” the session drew on collaborative research in four African countries as part of the Global Soil Week project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Setting the scene, Kader Baba, TMG, outlined the process of participatory mapping at designated LDN project sites Benin, Kenya, Malawi and Madagascar, as a first step towards identifying legitimate land tenure rights at the local level. Among key findings, he noted: the correlation between top-down management structures and increased risk of inflaming latent land conflicts; the disproportionately high risks shouldered by legitimate tenure rights holders when such rights are not officially recognized; and the disconnect between national restoration commitments and implementation at the sub-national due to the limited involvement of local stakeholders in LDN target setting, as well as weak institutional capacities.

Kicking off the discussion, Moderator Washe Kazungu, TMG, noted that development of national LDN programmes is a multi-stakeholder effort that also introduces frameworks for co-management of resources with local communities. While this can be considered a first step in recognizing legitimate tenure rights, he cautioned that to achieve progress on the ground, LDN implementing agencies need to internalize these emerging lessons to ensure that all stakeholders are fully on board.

Protected and agricultural landscapes: A false dichotomy?

Susan Chomba, Director, Vital Landscapes for Africa, World Resources Institute, pointed to a misconception that global and national restoration targets can be successfully achieved “independently of the huge need to sustainably manage existing agriculture land.” She noted that LDN objectives can be jeopardized if farmers abandon degraded land and encroach into new areas. Reflecting on the reasons for slow progress in engaging communities in restoration efforts, she highlighted:

The continued legacy of state-ownership of most forests and protected areas, which rely on “command and control” despite clear evidence that such approaches are ineffective, even counterproductive.

Even when steps have been made to establish community-based management structures, the requisite investments have not been made to build local capacity to negotiate for use rights and participate on an equal basis in co-management structures.

Communities are not homogenous entities, which can lead to elite capture when negotiating benefits from restoration processes, leading to further marginalization of women, young people, indigenous groups, and other vulnerable segments of the population.

Introducing a rights lens to landscape restoration

Ensuring that governments fulfil their fundamental role as the arbiters of such “fair” mechanisms is at the heart of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, which were endorsed by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in 2012. The spirit of the VGGT is evoked in Sierra Leone’s recent customary land rights legislation, which aims to empower local communities to make decisions on how their land is managed, with specific provisions to ensure that women and other marginalized groups are involved in such processes.

Representing one of the civil society networks that pushed for the legislation, Namati Sierra Leone Country Director Sonkita Conteh started by describing the impact of decades of large-scale land-based investments that have “trampled on the land rights of local communities and destroyed critical ecosystems.” Among important provisions, he outlined the intention of the new legislation to:

  • Ensure that customary tenure rights are documented and formalized

  • Mandate communities’ right to free, prior informed consent in all forms of land investments

  • Incorporate all environmental license conditions into community land lease agreements, allowing communities to take legal action for any infringements

  • Eliminate the artificially low value placed on communal land, hence enabling communities to negotiate for fair financial compensation for forgoing the use of their land.

Conteh concluded by stressing the importance of political will to harness the full potential of this milestone legislation. If successfully implemented, he added, Sierra Leone could truly exemplify how to redress the imbalances between “landscape, rights, and investment.”

Investing in “shared value”

In his proposal for a new economic model built around the equitable distribution of land and natural resources, ‘Land: A new paradigm for a thriving world,’ Martin Adams (2015) observed that while it is infeasible for us to share every aspect of nature with one another, it’s entirely possible “to share the monetary value that human beings assign to nature.”

The final segment of the session explored how to incentivize investments in sustainable land management at the local level. Manitrala Rasoanaivo, a forestry and ecosystem restoration expert from Madagascar, stated that to change mindsets it is important to first understand the needs of both agricultural producers and consumers. For small-scale land users in particular, she emphasized the importance of structured support, such as climate-indexed insurance, and strengthening institutions responsible for overseeing land investments.

Alidou Takpara, APIC NGO, Benin, stressed that land users will only invest in sustainable land management if they have certainty that they will have continued access to their land in future. He said that without clear agreements between forest management authorities and community institutions the result will be a zero-sum game in which neither livelihood needs nor environmental conservation goals will be achieved.

Wrapping up the discussions, Jes Weigelt, TMG, noted the session had helped advance the discussion on climate justice beyond the focus on historic emissions and loss and damage, by shedding light on “the distributional aspects attached to net zero policies.” He stressed that a clear case had been made that without recognizing the legitimate rights of community land stewards there can be no just transition to LDN, carbon neutrality or biodiversity conservation. He described the UNCCD decision to recognize the VGGT as a “huge step” towards reconciling tenure rights and landscape restoration, and welcomed the many practical ideas shared on how to achieve this transition, which is equally relevant for the other Rio Conventions. He stressed, however, that a lot still needs to happen to optimize the interplay between “what communities can and must do and what states do to create an enabling environment.”

TMG and partners will continue this conversation at diverse upcoming sessions exploring the land-food-climate nexus, including the Committee on World Food Security (CFS 50) and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 27).

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