A woman tills the soil on a small farm in Tanzania. Photo by: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

More than 1 billion people on the planet lack secure rights to the land they rely on for their livelihood, a problem that has long been recognized as an obstacle to economic development in the poorest parts of the world.

Now, experts say, it’s also proving to be an obstacle to solving climate change, with at least one-fourth of the world’s forest carbon stored on communal land. The issue will get some attention at the upcoming COP22 climate change conference in Marrakech, Morocco. But it stands as one of many side panel discussions on agriculture, implementation of the landmark Paris climate agreement and climate-related displacement, to name a few.

“It [the connection] is not understood or appreciated,” explained Chris Jochnick, president and CEO of Landesa, a nonprofit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poorest people.

Jochnick spoke with Devex at the 11th annual Columbia International Investment Conference in New York this week, focused on climate change and sustainable investment in natural resources. He explained how land insecure farmers typically operate with “short-term horizons,” thinking mostly about basic productivity. They likely do not have the time or money to consider all of the climate-friendly practices and tools they should be implementing.

“When we recognize something like one-fourth of global emissions is attributed to agriculture, and most agriculture is done by smallholder farmers, if they are not practicing climate-smart techniques that is a huge loss in terms of what we could be doing. This undercuts everything we’re trying to do on climate change,” Jochnick said.

Present NASA projections of global sea level rise by year 2100 range from 0.2 to 2.0 meters. The Paris climate change agreement, agreed upon in December 2015, commits governments to reduce emissions to help limit rising global temperatures to under 2 degrees Celsius. The deal went into effect Friday, just in time for COP22, the United Nations annual climate change conference.

Land rights are included as part of the Sustainable Development Goals — an evolution from their exclusion from the Millennium Development Goals. This has not translated into language in the Paris agreement, however, and in most national climate action plans. Or, for that matter, in a funding boost, Jochnick told Devex. Though he said he has witnessed a growth in partnerships with the development of the 2030 development agenda. Women, meanwhile, are generally more likely to not have land in their names.

“The minority of countries are looking at it, but it’s the minority. Women and land rights in particular are virtually absent and that is just so shortsighted, because … land is at the center of so many issues, so if you can’t get that right, you are really building on a house of sand,” Jochnick said.

The Ford Foundation, though, is paying attention to new youth-focused funding opportunities in this area, and how the narrative can be reshaped to focus on people who are advocating for their land, not just those who are painted as victims, said Penny Davies, a program officer of the Ford Foundation’s Equitable Development team.

“There’s a lot of talk about vulnerable communities and a significant number of people are actually protecting their forests and not being recognized for that work,” she said. “We’re relying on young people to have a relationship with those forests and land. … I’m keen on promoting youth engagement and positive things, people who are proud of their territory.”

Discussion at the two-day Columbia conference, which included remarks by economist Jeffrey Sachs, veered from the ongoing North Dakota pipeline protests and the upcoming presidential election in the U.S., to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and COP22.

Exclusions from the Paris climate change deal are inevitable, noted Timothy Groser, New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, be it agriculture or land rights, as Jochnick and others commented. He stressed the importance of “forward thinking” and accepting incremental progress.

“That is how agreements get done,” he said. Tearing everything down, on the other hand, is a “recipe for agreeing on nothing, ever.”

Devex Senior Correspondent Michael Igoe is reporting live from COP22 in Morocco this week. Stay tuned to Devex and follow him @AlterIgoe for on-the-ground coverage.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.