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Unlocking the potential of the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure in food system transformation

A summary of the CFS 50 side event, Unlocking the potential of the VGGT through Land Degradation Neutrality

Unlocking the potential of the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure in food system transformation
Photo credit: dMZ-Pixabay

A decade ago, members of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) endorsed a landmark consensus document: the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forest in the context of National Food Security (VGGT). Despite their voluntary nature, the VGGT make a strong link between states’ obligations to progressively realize the universal right to food and other basic human rights, and the means to reach this goal for billions of people whose livelihood directly depends on access to land and natural resources.

Notwithstanding, implementation of the Guidelines has been hampered by the lack of robust reporting and monitoring mechanisms. CFS 50 took place against the backdrop of interconnected global crises that are exacerbating food insecurity and other vulnerabilities. Diverse sessions commemorating the 10th anniversary of the VGGT therefore offered a valuable opportunity to explore how to further embed tenure security across a range of multilateral processes linking sustainable land management, food security and poverty reduction, gender equality, water and energy access, and related dialogues on inclusive sustainable development.

A side event co-organized by FAO, UNCCD, TMG and the Land Portal specifically aimed to discuss how integrating the VGGT into land degradation neutrality (LDN) initiatives can re-ignite momentum to enhance tenure security and unlock multiple social, economic and environmental benefits.

Bridging gaps between two worlds

Opening the discussions, Moderator Jes Weigelt, TMG Research, cited estimates that up to 40 percent of the global land area is currently degraded, which undermines the ability of more than three billion people to sustainably access food and water resources and build resilience to climate change. Lifeng Li, Director of the Land and Water Division at FAO, stressed that accelerating VGGT implementation requires collaborative and multi-stakeholder efforts that fully take account of the complexity, as well as sensitivity of land tenure arrangements in different contexts.

The Technical Guide on the integration of the VGGT to LDN implementation was specifically designed to support UNCCD parties and other actors in navigating this complexity. Introducing the Guide, which was co-developed by FAO and UNCCD, with input from diverse technical and civil society partners, Aurélie Brès, FAO, described the VGGT as the “first global soft law instrument on land tenure.” which provides a robust reference point for recognizing, and safeguarding legitimate tenure rights, even where such rights may not be codified in law. She noted that the Technical Guide offers a range of flexible, yet robust, “pathways” to help parties and other stakeholders to “bridge the gap between two worlds”: land as a human right, and land as a natural asset that needs to be taken care of.

Highlighting civil society views on the Technical Guide, Marioldy Sanchez, AIDER, and former member of the UNCCD CSO Panel, welcomed the inclusion of three critical guiding principles for countries: recognizing and safeguarding legitimate tenure rights; ensuring broad consultation and participation; and gender responsiveness. Sheenvisioned a strong “translation” role for the civil society sector in adapting the Technical Guide to local contexts and strengthening upward accountability in LDN programmes.

Contextualizing land rights

Structured around two multi-faceted panels, the side event drew on a range of practical case studies that offer insights on how to integrate VGGT principles both “globally” as well as in diverse institutional contexts and local realities.

A data story presented by the Land Portal revealed some practical challenges in obtaining policy relevant data and monitoring the implementation of agreed targets at different levels. Examples from Ghana, Uganda and Sierra Leone, helped add further context on difficult issues such as recognizing the diversity of land tenure arrangements at local and country levels, and the need to link technical capacity building to social and economic empowerment, especially for women, young people, and other marginalized groups.

Juliet Luwedde, UNCCD Youth Caucus, explained that despite their role in renewing the rural sector, young people are often not protected in existing land tenure arrangements, “because we’re seen as not competent.” Asher Nkegbe, UNCCD National Focal Point for Ghana, reflected on opportunities to apply the Technical Guide in addressing such challenges. He emphasized that further investment is needed to support African countries to establish meaningful partnerships and strengthen their capacity to mainstream rights-based LDN pathways across institutional silos.

Elizabeth Brillant, Global Affairs Canada, outlined how the country’s Feminist International Assistance Policy proactively support projects that advance inclusive governance, including through dedicated funding to implement the UNCCD’s Gender Action Plan, and contribution to research efforts to strengthen a just climate transition. Ulrich Apel, Global Environment Facility (GEF), discussed opportunities to increase “VGGT-related” investments within the GEF’s land degradation portfolio, highlighting support for participatory mapping and cadastre services with potential for achieving multiple environmental and social benefits.

Ombretta Tempra, Global Land Tool Network/UN- Habitat, presented the Arab Land Initiative as an example of how regional coordination can help link global frameworks to national and local action, facilitate technical support and capacity building, and strengthen monitoring of national and global processes.

In closing remarks, Miriam Medel, UNCCD, redefined the data gap as being about “the connection between data and action,” in a context of complex land tenure arrangements and their interplay with social, economic and political power. Against such a dynamic background, she noted that a common denominator of the VGGT and UNCCD land tenure decision was their success in demonstrating that it is possible to align diverse and conflicting interests into a “flexible and adaptive” global normative framework.

With less than eight years left to deliver on the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, and with land as a key enabler for achieving multiple SDG targets, these insights are relevant for upcoming discussions linking the governance of food systems transformation to cope with the climate and biodiversity crises, growing conflict, and other emerging threats.

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