by Andy White, Rights and Resources Initiative |

A wave of progress in recognising local people’s land rights is at risk of becoming just another blip on the radar.

The struggle of indigenous peoples and local communities to own and manage their ancestral lands has been ongoing for centuries. Just 10 years ago, it was difficult to make their rights and contributions part of global discussions on climate change mitigation and sustainable development.

Today, we see unprecedented acceptance of community land rights as a perquisite for saving our planet, securing equitable economic development, and preventing conflict. Progress.

At the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, there was widespread support for the view that secure land rights for communities are crucial for the protection of forests.

With the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, more than 180 governments, companies, indigenous organizations, and conservation NGOs pledged to eliminate natural forest loss by 2030. Many have also pledged to respect the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of local communities in areas where they operate. Progress.

A host of new technologies, tools, and institutions have been developed to help turn these commitments into action: the mapping of community lands is far easier, less costly, and more common than ever before.

And LandMark, the first online global map of the lands collectively held by indigenous peoples and local communities, shows that these lands are not vacant or available for governments to freely handout.

The Tenure Facility, is the first international grant-making institution exclusively focused on securing land and resource rights for indigenous peoples and local communities.

The Interlaken Group, a multi-stakeholder network builds tools for investors and companies who want to ensure that their operations fully respect the rights of customary landholders to protect both human rights and their bottom line.

The Land Rights Now campaign, powered by hundreds of local and international organizations, is raising global awareness of indigenous and community land rights. Progress!

And most promising of all is the growing power and organizational strength of the indigenous and community organizations who are relentlessly promoting their rights and pursuing justice—both at home and internationally. These relatively new power players are driving NGOs, U.N. agencies, and private actors to wake up and respond. Huge progress!


The movement to secure customary land rights is clearly better positioned than ever to bend the rural areas of the world towards justice, equity, conservation, and peace. For those of us who have watched these rights go ignored for too long—with the resulting conflict, environmental devastation, and human rights violations—it is incredibly exciting to see.

But at the same time, and increasingly in the last few years, there is growing resistance and “pushback” from the vested interests in conventional development and conservation. A horrifying increase in the murders of land rights activists—40 percent of whom are indigenous peoples.

A diminishing, if not closing, political space for civil society in many countries. Some of the legal protections of indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands—achieved after decades of struggle—are now being rolled back by governments: the new Brazilian government is now promoting an amendment to the constitution to allow industrial extraction within indigenous lands, the Ministry of Forestry in India is actively thwarting the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. These are certainly not signs of progress.

Have we seen the highwater mark of indigenous and community land rights? Is all the aforementioned progress and promise just a fad, and a rapidly fleeting fad at that?

Recent research shows that indigenous peoples and local communities have legal rights to just 10 percent of global land mass, less than one-fifth of the lands they customarily claim. They—and everyone relying on the natural resources they defend—cannot afford for recent commitments to be the latest in a long line of development “fads”.


We, the international community working on these issues, need to do three things in order to close the existing gap in recognition of local peoples’ land rights:

1. Muster greater ambition and targeted funding from development agencies and donors for this agenda

2. Better respond to and coordinate with indigenous peoples, communities, and each other; and

3. Implement the existing commitments from governments and private actors.

Without these three things, this wave of progress risks becoming just another blip on the radar.

New tools and global rhetoric for recognizing local peoples’ rights and contributions to global development goals will not matter if Liberia game-changing opportunity to pass a comprehensive Land Rights Act for communities before the August deadline passes without action.

New tools and rhetoric won’t matter if Indonesia does not implement the 2014 Constitutional Court decision to recognize the rights of its communities. New tools and the right rhetoric won’t matter if Brazil and Peru rollback the protections that local communities have fought so hard for.

Rhetoric alone won’t matter if the US$5 billion pledged by Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom is not helping to clarify local tenure and protect forest guardians. It won’t matter if the World Bank and its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and Forest Investment Program with over US$1 billion in funds, mostly unspent, do not open up and directly prioritize and support the recognition of indigenous and community lands.

To be clear, the opportunity for real, extensive, transformation has never been greater. New tools and a growing global recognition of the need to recognize and respect local peoples’ rights are our best chance to get it right. We know what we need: increased ambition, coordination, and implementation at scale.

With real progress on these fronts we will finally achieve the transformation of rural land rights across the developing world that millions of people have been living, and dying for, for centuries.

Andy White is the coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, which works to encourage forest tenure and policy reforms