- The report finds indigenous peoples and local communities have legal rights to just 18 percent of the world’s land area.
- Lack of indigenous land rights can contribute to poverty, loss of cultural identity, and environmental destruction.
- Many countries have the means to extend land rights in the near future.
Around 1.5 billion people worldwide are members of indigenous communities, many of whom depend on the land around them to survive. However, a new analysis published this week finds that they lack rights to nearly three-quarters of their land. Researchers say this is hindering efforts to fight hunger, poverty, and climate change.
The report was conducted by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a coalition of organizations engaged in policy and land reform around the world. Their analysis represents a baseline of data on land rights, and finds that indigenous peoples and local communities have legal rights to just 18 percent of the world’s land area.
“This report spells out the catastrophic failure of governments to respect the basic land rights of more than one billion people,” said Andy White, Coordinator of RRI.
Governments and the private sector claim most of the land managed by local communities, the report’s authors write. One study used in the analysis found that 93 percent of the industrial concessions in eight tropical countries were occupied by indigenous people.
“While government leaders are negotiating international agreements to end poverty and stop climate change, they are failing to match these commitments at home,” White said. “Too many governments are still handing out local peoples’ lands for economic developments that exploit natural resources, accelerate climate change, and destroy livelihoods.”
RRI looked at 64 countries scattered across the world and occupying different kinds of ecosystems, including grasslands, forests, and arid regions. Their report found that countries differ vastly in their distribution of land rights. India and Indonesia scored some of the lowest marks, with an estimated 1.2 percent and 0.2 percent of indigenous-held land formally recognized, respectively. China, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and Canada together comprise 67 percent of world’s land area owned or controlled by local communities. In only four countries do indigenous people and local communities own or control more than half the land area: Papua New Guinea (97 percent), Tanzania (75 percent), Uganda (67 percent), and Turkmenistan (64 percent).
In half (32) of the countries examined for the report, less than 5 percent of land area was controlled by the communities that live on it. And less than a quarter (15) had no indigenous land ownership.
Twelve of the countries examined are considered “fragile states” by the World Bank. Fragile states are those that are often affected by conflict, which is itself often caused by disputes over land and natural resources.
“Progress in recognizing community-based land rights is strikingly weak in the fragile states included in this global baseline study,” write the report’s authors. They add that only 2 percent of land in these 12 fragile states is controlled by indigenous peoples and local communities. Of that, “only a fraction of one percent is owned by them.”
According to the report, lack of legal rights to their land makes communities vulnerable to slew of detrimental effects, such as loss of their cultural identities, diminished livelihoods, and violence.
“Pressures are increasing as governments issue concessions for forestry, industrial agriculture, large-scale mining, and oil and gas production on community lands,” the authors write. “Disputes over land and natural resources are also a contributing cause of armed conflict.”
Community-based land tenure also affects the environment. Previous research by RRI and the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that land held by local communities and indigenous peoples tended to be significantly less impacted by deforestation than land managed by governments or private entities. For instance, Brazil’s community forests have a deforestation rate that is 22 times lower than it would be if none of its lands were under community protection.
The impacts of reduced deforestation aren’t just felt in and around the forests themselves. By keeping the trees in the ground, more carbon is sequestered, potentially slowing climate change.
“What we find is that where there is legal recognition, and where that recognition is protected, enforced, then you have a very, very sharp reduction in deforestation,” Andrew Steer, President and CEO of WRI said previously.
The findings of this new RRI report point to many areas needing improvement – but some of these have potential for progress in the near future. For instance, 88 percent of the countries surveyed have at least one law that communities may be able to use to obtain legal recognition of their land rights.
In particular, the authors point to a 2013 ruling in Indonesia that invalidated government control of customary forests. If implemented, it could vastly increase the amount of community-controlled land from 0.25 percent of the country’s territory to 23 percent.
In India, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 requires legal recognition of the rights of 150 million people who live in the subcontinent’s approximately 40 million hectares of forestland. Implementation has been stymied, but the report states the current administration is taking on the issue.
“When it comes to recognizing who owns the land targeted for development, governments and the private sector need to engage in a race to the top, not the bottom,” RRI’s White said. “This race has begun in earnest, and while international meetings at the United Nations and elsewhere can provide helpful goals and rallying points, the only real way to achieve sustainable development and avoid disastrous conflict and climate change is to recognize the land rights of local people.”