GBM Blog

Leaders of emerging countries are called to be accountable on disputed lands

February 15, 2013 - 07:40PM
Published by Emanuela Piccolo

Last week – staff from the Green Belt Movement’s Europe office attended a very informative annual Panel discussion hosted by Rights and Resources Initiative State of Rights and Resources 2012-2013: Landowners or Labourers? A panel on the rural development choices facing leaders of developing countries“.  The panel gave insight into the land tenure regulations and indigenous peoples’ rights in natural resources management in a number of southern countries. Experts from around the world presented their findings at national levels, such as China’s current land reform, and European-level instruments such as the Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) on land regulations between the European Union (EU) and tropical countries were analysed.

What emerged is the view that southern countries have a choice for their path to economic growth: either to take an inclusive route with respect to the rights of communities or the more commonly seen route of extractive exploitation of lands and natural resources where indigenous and community land rights are disputed.

Either way, the message was clear that the private sector’s growing role in development will only be beneficial if governments provide leadership and accountability on land investments.

Private sector investments have produced an average economic growth of 5% in emerging countries since 2000. The problem arises when the resources available for investments are natural resources. The panellists described how governments give rights to land investors without consent from communities, who often do not even know their land has been granted to someone else.  Most governments are still using concessions rather than formal legal entitlements.  In Liberia, with 75% of the country made up of concessions, this path has become a custom. What are the consequences of land investments allocated by the government without previous local consultation? Looking at it from the investor’s point of view means investing in disputed lands which could cause irreparable financial loss as the project is delayed or the investment may need to be withdrawn.  

Unresolved disputes over land tenure undoubtedly expose communities, governments and land investors to conflicts. Just recently GBM reported on the escalating violence that has been affecting communities in the Tana Delta (see our press release on 6th February 2013) in Kenya since August 2012.  Over 34,000 people have been displaced and over 180 deaths have been officially registered.  The Tana River district is an important ecological and natural resource for Kenya. It has a population of approximately 180,000 people with the Pokomo (farmers), Orma and Wardey (pastoralists) being the dominant ethnic groups. Officially the land is either government land or trust land with Pokomo farmers occupy most of the trust land while pastoralists mainly on the government land. Although the district is composed of several areas of forest, woodland and grassland, the district is becoming increasingly prone to drought, reducing food security and water supply.  

Pastoralists and nomadic groups started disputing over the access to water while investors, both Kenyan and foreign, are acquiring leases on vast tracts of land for large-scale crop cultivation for food and bio-fuels, creating greater pressures on communities and insecure tenure.

With the Kenya elections approaching and none of the presidential candidates so far addressing the need for consultations with indigenous peoples over land, there appears to be a barrier in furthering the cause of “customary tenure” recognition for rural communities.

On a positive note, Green Belt Movement has a rich history of successful public campaigns on land rights, and as we heard at the panel discussion, in the last decade numerous civil society campaigns in other countries such as Tanzania, Brazil, and Bolivia have reached great achievements.  As we see more governments signing over forest lands to corporate interests, the power of public awareness campaigns is emerging and creating a real opportunity to secure land rights and ultimately conserve our precious forests.