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The law of the land

Posted by Ross Clarke Law and Justice Adviser

23rd Jul 2015

The women who are part of the Gbarlin Women’s co-operative rest in the shade after harvesting peppers on their farm near Kbor town, Mamb Kaba district, Margibi county, Liberia. Credit: Andy Hall/Oxfam

For marginalised men, women and communities across the developing world the threat of land dispossession is all too real. Here Ross Clarke, Law and Justice Adviser, introduces the Community Land Rights Programme, which aims to address tenure insecurity by empowering communities with the legal tools to protect their land.  

For communities on the frontline of the ever increasing pressure on land, the recent land rights revival must provide little solace. Unaware how their interests are being advanced (or not) in new policies and guidelines coming out of Rome, Addis Ababa, New York and the social responsibility departments of major multinationals, the reality for many is that rights to land are becoming less and less secure.

Several drivers create a perfect storm: high commodity prices, increasing demand for land for agribusiness, population growth and climate related land degradation. Simply put, there is high demand globally with less quality land to go around. These conditions put the marginalised at even greater risk and provide those in power with unprecedented opportunities to acquire land at scale for massive financial gain.  'A land certificate is a weapon which can protect your land.' Rehema Jongo, Councillor in Mvuha village, Tanzania.

At Oxfam, our decades of experience working on land rights across over 40 countries has taught us that discriminatory access to and control over land is a primary driver of poverty, inequality and conflict. We also know that women have far weaker land rights - to far less land - than men. But we have learnt that with secure rights to land, particularly in women, a range of benefits can flow: increased access to credit and agricultural productivity, better environmental management, improved household welfare, strengthened bargaining power and improved gender equality. Land rights can be the foundation for social and economic advancement.

Yet although there have been generally positive changes in global and regional policy frameworks, we are yet to see this translate into increased tenure security for those that need it most. Policy on paper rarely becomes a reality in practice, and in our experience, tenure insecurity remains the pervading norm for marginalised men, women and communities across the developing world.

We need practicable, scalable strategies that make a difference. Ones that do not get imposed from the halls of power downward but that take community knowledge of their most valuable assets and cultural heritage as the starting point. Strategies that support those who have the most incentive to ensure responsible land management to define, map, value, govern and protect community lands and resources. This will look different in different contexts, however at its core is a belief that fair and equitable land governance is not a purely technical exercise. Rather it is one entrenched in the political economy of land relations and it requires tools to be placed in communities' hands to level the playing field.

Fatuma. Credit: Oxfam TanzaniaThis is why Oxfam is teaming up with Namati, a leading organisation on legal empowerment and community land protection, to provide the 'weapons' to protect community land. Through the DFID funded Community Land Rights Programme we are applying innovative legal empowerment techniques to support communities in Kenya and Nepal to map community lands, build inclusive management of resources, facilitate the resolution of land disputes, and gain legal protection over their lands.

Throughout this process we will carefully track impacts on gender and conflict dynamics. We will further link these findings to our land advocacy agenda - which includes the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights - an initiative that seeks to dramatically increase the land recognised as owned or controlled by indigenous peoples and local communities by 2020.

We know that community focused programmes will not be a silver bullet to solve tenure insecurity. However, we hope it transforms land governance from an abstraction dictated by far away elites to something that is community owned and driven, providing tangible change for those whose land is most at risk. We further aim to build an evidence base that demonstrates why securing the land rights of women and communities must be at the heart of the development agenda and have clear indicators in the sustainable development goals.

We believe that targeted, community level legal support can play a catalytic, transformative role in securing land rights. For those currently facing the very real threat of dispossession, this can't come quick enough.

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Header photo: The women who are part of the Gbarlin Women's co-operative rest in the shade after harvesting peppers on their farm near Kbor town, Mamb Kaba district, Margibi county, Liberia. Credit: Andy Hall/Oxfam
Body photo:  Fatuma Mohamed Nguye receives her land certificate, March 2015. Morogoro, Tanzania. Credit: Marc Wegerif

Blog post written by Ross Clarke

Law and Justice Adviser

More by Ross Clarke

Ross Clarke