Opinion: Leaving no one behind — Why land rights must be the linchpin of sustainable development

A pilot project in Boca Pariamanu, Peru. Photo by: Rights and Resources Initiative

The Sustainable Development Goals aspire to “leave no one behind.” If the international community is to succeed in this aim, it must address the grinding poverty, hunger, and despair that still plague many of the world’s forests and rural areas. This devastating inequality is closely tied to the other major existential crisis facing the world today: climate change. If either continues on its current track, our future will be defined by political disruption, conflict, and the collapse of the resources that humanity relies on.

This is not hyperbole — but nor is it unsolvable. In fact, secure, legally recognized land rights for the world’s indigenous peoples, local communities, and rural women are the linchpin of solving both. Almost one-third of the world’s population depends on community-held lands for their livelihoods and sustenance, with the poorest households most dependent on the land. Where the rights of these more than 2.5 billion people are recognized and respected, local communities can sustain their livelihoods and choose their own paths for development.

And they can continue to steward and protect the lands we all depend on: legally recognized community forests store more carbon and have lower deforestation rates than government protected areas. In Peru, for example, recognizing rights resulted in immediate benefits for communities and the climate alike. Forest clearing and disturbance dropped by nearly two-thirds within two years.

“There needs to be higher level commitment and coordination between leading donors, governments, influential private companies, and indigenous leaders to deliver innovative solutions to protect people and planet.”

— Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative

The poverty and marginalization plaguing the rural world stem from the fact that indigenous peoples and local communities customarily own more than half the world’s land, yet only have legally recognized rights to 10 percent of it. This gap threatens community livelihoods and leaves their lands vulnerable to deforestation and degradation.

It drives conflict as well — including evictions, violence, and criminalization against community members, leaving female land rights defenders particularly vulnerable. Insecure rights can even drive larger social conflicts that threaten the stability of states, as in Liberia, Mali, Ethiopia, and Colombia. For all of us, unrecognized land rights create a less secure and sustainable world.

The current crisis of poverty and deforestation in the world’s forests is the product of a history of development projects that saw these lands as “empty” government property. The vast majority of investment sites in developing countries — at least 93 percent — are already inhabited. Ignoring the customary owners of these lands has failed to deliver inclusive economic development, instead driving massive inequality, food insecurity, and environmental destruction. Land use by rural communities benefits more people and generates better environmental outcomes than large-scale plantations and extractive projects. Some 80 percent of the food consumed in the developing world is produced locally. Achieving food security and decreasing poverty require us to put community land rights at the center of development agendas.

A coordinated effort to secure rights

This week, hundreds of development financiers, companies, indigenous and community representatives, civil society actors, and donors from 65 countries are gathering at the world’s largest conference to advance indigenous community land rights. The conference will feature innovative new solutions to secure rights on the ground. Find out more by visiting the conference website and have your say with hashtag #landrightsnow on social media.

Fortunately, the world is better positioned than ever to close this gap. A growing number of international organizations and instruments recognize the importance of community land rights, including the SDGs. In many places, laws respecting community land rights, such as the 2016 Kenya Community Land Act, the 2016 Colombian Peace Accord, and the 2006 Forest Rights Act in India, already exist. Implementation of these and other existing or proposed laws in just a few countries such as Indonesia, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo could secure at least 200 million hectares of community lands and forests, contributing to the well-being of 400 to 500 million people living in rural areas.

Even the private sector increasingly recognizes that ignoring land rights is a recipe for conflict, delayed operations, legal challenges, and reputational damage that can cost billions of dollars. Research has conclusively shown that private sector actors typically cannot buy their way out of disputes, leading many to shift their operations to recognize the rights of local communities. The Interlaken Group, convened by RRI and the International Finance Corporation, presents an opportunity for companies and communities to find common ground to resolve these disputes. Some members, such as New Forests and Illovo Sugar, have worked with communities affected by their operations to map customary lands and resolve conflict — and in doing so, strengthened their business positions.

See more from this series:

In fight for secure land rights, corporations and communities find common ground
Conflicts over land rights are on the rise around the world, as resource exploitation pits corporations against local and indigenous groups. The Interlaken Group wants to reverse the trend by having corporations, investors, international NGOs, and land rights activists sit down at the same table to actively seek solutions. Can it work?

To save the world's forests, protect women's land rights
Women living in forest communities play a crucial role in climate change mitigation and economic development in low- and middle-income countries, a new report by the Rights and Resources Initiative says. But legal frameworks granting them safe and secure tenure rights are lacking, putting countless communities at risk of increased poverty and vulnerability to land degradation. Devex gets the inside track.

An unprecedented platform of tools and institutions has taken shape to help implement this proliferation of laws and commitments — with indigenous peoples and community members themselves leading implementation efforts. The new Tenure Facility is the world’s first and only institution dedicated solely to supporting indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ efforts to secure their rights over lands and resources. The facility’s pilot projects have already advanced rights over nearly 2 million hectares of community lands — slowing deforestation in Indonesia, protecting uncontacted indigenous communities in Peru, and resolving land-based conflicts blocking Mali’s Civil War recovery.

The groundwork has been laid, and momentum is building. Yet great challenges remain. Implementation of existing laws and commitments remains weak. The current suite of global initiatives is disconnected and fragmented, and has thus far failed to deliver at the scale and speed needed.

And there is a risk that governments and the global development community will not deliver sustained support over the coming decades to ensure that progress on the ground lives up to the many promises enshrined in declarations, laws, and policies that recognize the pivotal nature of community and indigenous land rights.

There needs to be higher level commitment and coordination between leading donors, governments, influential private companies, and indigenous leaders to deliver innovative solutions to protect people and planet. Such leadership can help us stem the growing tide of inequality, avert a climate disaster, and ensure that no one is left behind.

How can the international community come together to tackle the inequality and the marginalization of women, indigenous peoples, and rural communities? Devex and our partner, the Rights and Resources Initiative, are exploring the initiatives supporting land and resource rights and the role of stakeholders across sectors to partner for impact. Join us for the third international conference on community land and resource rights “Reducing inequality in a turbulent world: Scaling-up strategies to secure indigenous, community, and women's land rights” in Stockholm, Sweden, on Oct. 4-5, for more on this topic.

About the author

  • Andy white profile

    Andy White

    Andy White is coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative. He also serves as president of the Rights and Resources Group, the nonprofit coordinating mechanism of the RRI Coalition based in Washington, D.C. Prior to co-founding RRI in 2005, Andy served as senior director of programs at Forest Trends and Natural Resource Management Specialist at the World Bank, as well as worked as a consultant to the International Food Policy Institute, Save the Children Federation and the Inter-American Foundation. He has worked extensively in Haiti, Mexico, and China. As coordinator of RRI, he advises policy research, advocacy, and engagement in Asia, Latin America, and Africa and leads initiatives and networks to advance RRI's mission. His research and publications have focused on forest tenure and policy, forest industry and trade, as well as the role of forests, communities, and institutions in climate change.