Women from the village of Abeye, Ethiopia with their land certificates obtained through a U.S. Agency for International Development program. What new strategies are advocates pioneering to protect and conserve community lands and natural resources? Photo by: Anthony Piaskowy / USAID / CC BY-NC

Rural communities across Africa are facing immense threats to their land and natural resources. From increasing foreign investment and speculation by national elites, to rising population and climate change, land claims governed by customary rules or indigenous peoples are beset from all sides.

The introduction of external destabilizing influences often sets off a cascade of multiple and overlapping intracommunity challenges. Often the divisive tactics of investors create community divisions, or infrastructure development degrades livelihoods and creates intracommunity conflicts over scarce resources; elites may make back-room deals with leaders, undermining community trust of local leaders.

Land rights advocates are frequently called upon to support communities facing such issues, especially when certain trends have weakened the communities’ ability to respond to conflicts or threats. Threats to land rights are further compounded by a lack of national political will to recognize and protect community tenure rights. Communities and their advocates must often struggle upstream against government reluctance — or outright resistance — to implement national laws and international guidelines.

Using a single strategy is rarely enough to effectively address these interlinked challenges. Advocates across the world are pioneering new strategies to protect and conserve community lands and natural resources, many of which also support communities to leverage the momentum surrounding land protection efforts to create positive intracommunity change.

Hard-won, crosscutting ‘lessons learned’

An analysis of the experiences recounted in this publication yields valuable lessons for other advocates. Regardless of the threats faced or the strategies employed to protect community land and natural resource rights, the various advocates’ advice is strikingly similar:

To connect practitioners and support sharing of best practices, for example, Namati and Natural Justice brought together 20 expert advocates from across Africa for a three-day symposium. This resulted in the publication of a book of case studies that highlight advocates’ innovating community land protection efforts. The 18 case studies showcase advocates’ pioneering work, including: 

How the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association successfully intervened in the Zimbabwean government’s attempt to forcefully relocate communities affected by diamond mining; how the Land and Equity Movement in Uganda achieved a degree of victory in its effort to support a community to recover its lands from an elite who had used intimidation and litigation to steal once-shared grazing lands; and how the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation supported the Khwe San community in Namibia to protect their natural resources and train youths to play and indispensable role in the park’s operations when their ancestral lands were turned into a national park.

These examples illustrate that when working to protect community land claims, no one strategy will be a “silver bullet.” Rather, as the case studies show, success is often contingent upon often advocates' ability to leverage a variety of assets and tactics to address a threat from multiple angles, simultaneously.

1. Involve all community members, recognizing that communities are diverse and that different stakeholder groups may have conflicting interests. Notably, advocates may need to support the healing and reunification of communities fragmented by conflict or outside interference. It may be necessary to use mediation and conflict resolution to arrive at intracommunity agreement before moving forward with land protection efforts.

2. Remember that leaders’ interests may differ from community members’ interests. It is necessary to build direct connections with community members — not only leaders — to ensure that continued community support is possible even when leaders act against community interests.

3. Build critical mass around a unified community future vision to challenge outsiders’ “divide and conquer” efforts. Companies and other actors seeking land and natural resources oſten use divisive tactics to weaken communities’ opposition to investment projects. Building a critical mass around a common, community-created vision for the community’s future can strengthen community cohesion, unite community members around common goals, and make it harder for outsiders to weaken community ties.

4. Build on community members’ existing expertise and skills and strengthen community capacity to advocate for their land and natural resource rights. Community members are generally “experts” on their lands and natural resources. When formulating an advocacy strategy, advocates should leverage a community’s existing skills, assets, knowledge and resources. Advocates should also invest in community capacity building so that communities can resist future injustice without relying on external support. Case studies in the book recommend many types of capacity building, including skills for: project management, mobilization, fundraising and resource-collection, mapping, data collection, and monitoring and evaluation.

5. Leverage community land protection efforts to strengthen local governance. Drafting and formally adopting community by-laws for good governance and electing a representative, diverse land governing body can significantly strengthen local land and natural resource governance.

6. Ensure that communities understand the benefits and costs of a proposed investment. To ensure that communities make informed decisions about whether to share their lands with an investor, it is important to support communities to understand the socio-economic returns of conserving their natural resources as compared to the promised financial payoff of selling or leasing their land to investors.

7. Work closely with government actors to build their understanding and support. Government agencies are not monolithic — advocates can often find ministers and high-level administrators who will strongly advocate for community rights. To ensure authentic, enduring success of a community land and natural resource protection effort, government decision-makers must be convinced of the efforts’ value and legitimacy.

8. Leverage the media and use it to ensure that all voices are heard. Target print, radio and social media to spread advocacy and community land protection messages out to the wider region, nation and world. Ensure to include women’s, youth’s and elders’ voices — different messages may resonate with different audiences.

9. Link community land protection efforts to wider networks for support. This entails forming strong networks of like-minded organizations and actors (at the local, national and international levels). Such networks energize efforts, encourage the sharing of experiences and strategies, and may help in influencing policymakers.

10. Link small community-driven initiatives to a “bigger dream.” Community-driven development may be challenging and time-consuming. To help motivate a community towards its future visions and goals, break “big dreams” into smaller tasks and initiatives that can be accomplished with limited resources in shorter periods.

Front-line advocates around the world urgently need to share their community land protection strategies and learn from one another’s successes and mistakes. The struggles and victories of an individual organization or community can at times feel overshadowed by influential opponents and daunting global trends. But when taken together, individual stories of creativity, unity, courage, and solidarity coalesce into their own trend — a stirring, alternative narrative of hope, justice and the power of collective action.

To read additional content on land and property rights, go to Focus On: Land Matters in partnership with Thomson Reuters.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Rachael Knight

    Rachael Knight is the director of Namati’s Community Land Protection Program. She is an attorney with expertise in the areas of land tenure security, access to justice, and legal empowerment of the poor. She previously served as director of the International Development Law Organization’s (IDLO) Community Land Titling Initiative, working to document and protect the customary land rights of indigenous groups in Uganda, Liberia and Mozambique.