Ethiopian villagers incorporate alley cropping — planting crops in between trees — for a more productive land use. Sustainable stewardship of the land encourages smarter use of an ecosystem. Photo by: Trees ForTheFuture / CC BY

They are surrounded by some of the world’s most stunning nature reserves, but the hunting and gathering Boni and nearby seafaring Bajuni tribes’ way of life was, until recently, under threat.

The designated reserves, meant to safeguard the rich biodiversity along Kenya’s coast, had not stopped illegal logging, widespread slash-and-burn agriculture, encroachment by farmers and big plans for ports, railways and oil refineries that opponents to the construction plans said ignored the needs of a fragile environment.

In 2009, Tetra Tech began a pilot project supported by the U. S. Agency for International Development to encourage the Kenyan government to secure customary land and resource tenure and as a result, recognize Boni and Bajuni claims to their ancestral lands along Kenya’s northern seashore.

Securing those rights, the thinking went, would encourage sustainable stewardship of the land — and not just to protect the biodiversity of a fragile ecosystem. Land tenure is good for the environment for many reasons: It may improve the quality and management of water, encourage sustainable agricultural production as well as eco-friendly urban and exurban development, and thus curb climate change, for instance.

“If something is yours for the long term, you’re more likely to manage it with the environment in mind,” said Matt Sommerville, chief of party of Tetra Tech’s tenure and global climate change project. “You don’t have to own the land, but you need to have enough security to know that you’ll continue to have access to it.”

According to USAID, as many as 2 billion people live in countries where land is claimed by an ethnic group or indigenous people who use it without formal property titles. Even when governments recognize those traditional claims to the land, they often don’t recognize indigenous claims to the resources on the land, particularly in Africa.

In Ghana, for instance, the law states that minerals and waterways are the property of the government. In Tanzania, the government recognizes customary claims but retains the right to grant mining, trophy and other concessions to foreign companies.

In Liberia, by contrast, the state took its first step earlier this year toward recognizing both customary land and resource rights when a land commission recommended giving customary land claims the same protection as private lands. The recommendation came after the Millennium Challenge Corp. initiated the Land Policy and Institutional Support Project, implemented by USAID with the help of Tetra Tech, Landesa and Thomson Reuters.

Those who work to promote more secure land tenure say land is the first step in preserving the environment.

“If you don’t have well-defined property rights, it’s difficult to conserve the land itself or water, forests or natural habitats,” said Jorge Munoz, a land and tenure advisor for the World Bank. “To address those issues presupposes comprehensive knowledge about who owns what land.”

Peter Veit, project manager for the Equity, Poverty and Environment Initiative at the World Resources Institute, agreed.

“We want to secure rights to communities so they have an incentive to invest and therefore manage the land well,” Veit said.

Help to create laws that recognize customary tenure to resources in addition to land

As populations continue to grow, land will become scarcer in developing countries, particularly in Africa and South America, experts say. The World Bank estimates that 6 million hectares of forests, pastures and wetlands will be developed for agricultural use each year until 2030.

Without secure customary tenure, millions of indigenous peoples’ claims to land may be lost to such development — even though traditional management practices can help maintain ecosystems and preserve biodiversity, according to the Center for International Environmental Law.

By working with governments and local people to recognize customary tenure to resources in addition to land, development agencies can help indigenous peoples maintain their customary ways of utilizing land.

“In many countries of the world, if you get rights to land, you only get surface rights and some natural resource rights,” Veit said. “The property rights for high-value resources — minerals, hydro carbon, water, wild life, trees — all of those have separate property rights regimes managed by different laws and public institutions.”

He continued: “When a community has rights to land, it doesn’t really mean that natural resource rights holders can’t enter onto their land and exercise their natural resource rights, often with profound effects and significant implications for their land tenure.”

Provide agricultural training with smallholder farmers in mind

Often, agricultural research that could strengthen the environment — through safer pesticides or soil preservation, for instance — instead caters toward the needs of large-scale, wealthier farmers and corporate interests, development experts say.

“There’s not enough [focus] on the small farmers who live in remote areas of countries and who are yet the ones who are producing quite a bit of the world’s food,” said Mark Freudenberger, a senior associate with Tetra Tech.

But if small farmers don’t adopt best practices, their efforts to raise production levels could be damaging.

“If you try to increase yields but it doesn’t lead to long-term environmental protection, agricultural systems will collapse,” Freudenberger said.

Rodolfo Camacho, vice president of international economic growth at Abt Associates, echoed the opinion.

“There needs to be training on better agricultural practices so that farms can be more efficient and thus smaller in size,” he said.

One of the best ways to safeguard the environment while increasing agricultural yield lies in establishing farmer-to-farmer training, Freudenberger said. However, such training is new and often not well supported in many developing countries.

Support the creation of integrated water management systems

Water is a major concern among those working at the intersection of land and the environment. More than 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. Population growth is increasing the need for water conservation to ensure agricultural development.

“Good governance is going to be the main solution,” Camacho said.

Camacho views climate change and water management as the most pressing issues to resolve to maintain environmentally sound land practices.

“The challenge now is that with climate change, annual rainfall averages are diminishing but you get more concentrated storms but a lot of years of drought; so at the end, you have less water,” he said. “We need to look at how best to share water and conserve water as climate change affects us.”

Work with governments to preserve forests and counter climate change

Some 93 percent of the world’s remaining natural forests are clustered in just 24 countries, according to the Center for International Environmental Law. They are home to several hundred million people in South and Southeast Asia alone, while another 60 million highly forest-dependent indigenous people live in the rain forests of Latin America, West Africa and Southeast Asia.

There is growing evidence that community-based entities are as good, and often better, managers of forests than federal, regional and local governments, according to the center. Traditional management practices can help maintain ecosystems and preserve biodiversity.

“The body of evidence that has emerged around the world is that communities in certain situations can be excellent custodians, particularly if good governance is in place,” said Mike Roth, a senior associate at Tetra Tech.

Still, destruction of forests has remained a problem, with international logging and population displacement imposing a tremendous challenge on forest communities, Roth said. That has led some in the international development community to search for a third way — one that does not rely solely on governments or on ethnic communities — to conserve forests and other land.

Enter the carbon market which, to many environmental activists and aid workers is what Roth calls “the holy grail” of sustainable policies.

In Ethiopia, for instance, the government paid the equivalent of a dime to local communities for every tree they planted as part of a carbon sequestration program; for every tree that remained planted, the grower received an additional small payment, so the tree growers were not only planting trees, but were investing in their long-term maintenance.

“Imagine what would happen if a large power plant in the U.S. wanting to buy carbon credits made a large amount of money available to carbon sequestration projects around the world,” Roth said. “It could help fund livelihood projects for forest communities in Latin America or help farmers in the Sahel return livestock to grassland. They become a stakeholder and they have incentive to invest.”

Not everyone agrees, to be sure — but the idea of carbon credits is part of a growing debate on how to use land and other resources sustainably.

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

About the author

  • Deborah Horan

    Deborah Horan is an award-winning journalist who has written about international development issues for the World Bank's Human Development Network and for the International Finance Corp.'s Sustainable Business Advisory about health, HIV/AIDS, early childhood development, education and the promotion of small business through business management training. Deb has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war, among other international assignments.

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