Tested tools for righting resource wrongs

A new publication provides communities and nongovernmental organisations with effective tools to secure equitable access to land and other natural resources.

Conflict over forests, land and other natural resources is an increasingly bloody reality in many countries. Forced evictions, intimidation and violence are on the rise. Yet amid such adversity, sometimes communities triumph.

This year in Tanzania, Maasai communities – with women playing a leading role – mobilised to gain an important lands rights victory. Their effective use of land laws, combined with online activism and media coverage, led the Prime Minister to reverse a plan that would have evicted 20,000 people from their land. And in Cambodia, campaigners sense that the reaction to activist Chut Wutty's murder in 2012 could improve the prospects for land justice.

At the heart of these conflicts and the opportunities they create is the issue of tenure — or, who has rights to access, use and make decisions about resources.

Last year, 82 countries endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Lands, Fisheries, and Forests, which call for transparency in land deals, consultation with local communities, and respect for human rights. The guidelines are the result of a three-year international effort led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). If followed, they could ensure "more secure and more equitable access to land and natural resources, a key condition for encouraging responsible investment in agriculture".

But as they are voluntary not compulsory and guidelines not rules, who will pay any attention?

Tools and tactics

Well, some community groups and NGOs see potential in using these guidelines to make progress themselves and to call their governments to account. The hunt is on for effective tools to support their work.

The good news is that many such tools exist. In the forests sector, IIED has collaborated with FAO on a newly-published practical guide on improving governance of forest tenure, which summarises 86 tools that have been tried and tested and are ready to be used in new settings.

The guide is for anyone who wants to plan their next moves in efforts to improve decision-making about land and resources. It starts by highlighting important opportunities and challenges in governance today. It then shows how readers can identify their objectives and what actions they can take to overcome the challenges they face. It lists dozens of practical tools that people can use in different governance contexts and explains how much time, money and skills they need to use them.

Inspired by cases of tools wielded in action by IIED's partners in Africa and Asia in the Forest Governance Learning Group, and by NGOs such as the Forests Peoples Programme and Global Witness, we describe, for example:

  • participatory mapping of forest tenure.
  • ensuring free, prior and informed consent.
  • forest sector transparency report cards.
  • media and lobbying tactics.

After years of conflict over land and resources, there are new opportunities for community groups and nongovernmental organisations to use tools such as these to push for better outcomes.

Recent conflicts have pushed resource rights up political agendas and the priority lists of international organizations. And it seems they are hot issues in big business too. At a gathering in Switzerland in September, on scaling up strategies to secure community land and resource rights, companies such as mining giant Rio Tinto, the forestry company Stora Enso and the food conglomerate Nestlé were keen to explain how steps to recognise such rights were now central to their business models.

With businesses, media and governments all giving resource rights more attention, there is scope for real progress. The organisers of the meeting in Switzerland called for a doubling by 2018 of the amount of land recognised as owned or managed by indigenous peoples and communities. I hope many will join this effort, and will continue to develop and share tools that can help make the next five years less bloody than the past five.

James Mayers is head of IIED's Natural Resources Group (james.mayers@iied.org).

Download the new publication Improving governance of forest tenure: a practical guide

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