Helping Indigenous communities secure land rights in Nepal

Article, 18 December 2020

A land rights project in Nepal is working with young people to map land claims and help more than 2,000 Indigenous farmers get legal title to the lands their families have farmed for generations. The project is being supported by local officials and is attracting interest from local governments across Nepal.

A data collector speaks to a householder.

Young 'social mobilisers' interviewed more than 2,700 landless or untenanted families and gathered the data that was needed for the government to register their tenure (Photo: copyright Kumar Thapa, CSRC)

Based in Nepal, the Community Self Reliance Centre (CSRC) supports communities to address the structural injustices that contribute to landlessness and inequity among Nepali farmers. To date, CSRC has supported more than 59,897 landless and tenant families to formalise their land ownership, and helped over 13,000 couples to acquire joint land ownership titles.

This case study tells the story of how CSRC, by working in close partnership with the municipal government and leveraging the energy of local youth, has pioneered a strategy of rapidly documenting thousands of Indigenous families’ lands. 

CSRC undertook this work as part of its participation in the Community Land Protection Co-Learning Initiative, an annual peer-to-peer learning programme for grassroots organisations working on community land rights. CLPI is a joint programme of IIED, Namati and the International Land Coalition (ILC).

Documenting Indigenous and Dalit lands

In Nepal, there are more than 569,400 families classified as 'landless', which means that they either lack formal documentation for the land that they have been living and farming on for generations, or they have no land at all and are either tenant farmers or are farming on government land without express permission.

While the Nepali government has tried for decades to address this challenge, it has so far been unable to find a solution at scale. As a sign of progress, however, in early 2020 it formed a 'Land Issues Resolution Commission' with a mandate to provide land ownership certificates to landless families.

This victory was hard-fought: political factions fought again and again – in parliament, within the cabinet, and again when drafting accompanying regulations – to ensure that landless families were granted only use rights, not full ownership.  

To address the problem of landlessness in Nepal, CSRC decided to pilot a community-driven, low-cost land documentation process. CSRC chose Dangisaran Municipality, in southwestern Nepal, for its high level of landlessness, its primarily Indigenous Tharu population, and its high number of Dalits, the most discriminated against and disenfranchised group in Nepal.

Because of their status, Tharu people and Dalits often do not have legal title to their lands, which weakens their tenure security, makes it difficult to bequeath land to their children, and creates challenges when applying for essential services such as getting their homes connected to the electrical grid. 

Because many of Dangisaran’s leaders campaigned for election with promises that they would support families to document their lands, the municipal government was thrilled for CSRC’s help making good on these promises; to show its commitment and support, the municipality allocated US$6,000 towards CSRC’s efforts and signed an agreement with CSRC, pledging to support the process to its completion. 

At the inception of the project, CSRC’s field staff mobilised community members to come together and draw detailed 'context maps' that identified every family in their neighbourhood and noted whether or not they had titles for their lands. The mapping process revealed that 2,844 out of the 4,426 households in Dangisaran Municipality – more than half – were landless or lacking documents for their lands.  

As part of these mapping activities, CSRC also led the Tharu communities through a 'community origin story' mapping exercise. It learned about this exercise from the Rights and Rice Foundation, a Liberian NGO, during the CLPI global workshop.

By remembering their community’s origins and drawing a map of their lands from the past, communities were able to see in stark terms how, as the Indigenous People of the area, they had communally owned and cared for all the local land before non-Indigenous elites arrived, claimed large parcels of land in their names, and forced the Tharu people into being landless, unpaid, bonded labourers. 

Learning about this dispossession awakened a passion for justice among Tharu youth, and helped local leaders identify young Tharu 'social mobilisers' – a cadre of seven community youth who led the land documentation work. By remembering their community’s origins, the mobilisers and community members came to understand the historical injustices behind their landlessness, which motivated them to work hard to register every landless family’s claim. 

Once CSRC had identified all of the landless or undocumented families in Dangisaran, field staff – supported by these young social mobilisers – began an extensive household survey of each of the 2,712 families.

First, CSRC devised an efficient strategy to address potential boundary conflicts: the field team printed dozens of large, 6x4-foot satellite maps that showed each neighbourhood in detail, then convened groups of neighbours to physically draw the boundaries of their lands onto the satellite images in front of each other. When neighbours disagreed about the location of a boundary line, CSRC helped them to work through their boundary conflict and agree on where the boundary lay. Each family plot was then given a number and entered into a database.

A group of people looking at a satellite map.

The CSRC  team printed out big satellite maps and asked groups of neighbours to draw the boundaries of their lands on the maps (Photo: copyright Kumar Thapa, CSRC)

Next, plot by plot, the social mobilisers interviewed each household, gathering the data required for the government to register every family’s land. They also collected evidentiary proof of each family’s social and economic status; acquired copies of any existing certificates or proof of their land claims; took photos of the family and their house and lands, and made a short video of the family and their home. At the same time, young mobilisers trained in UN Habitat’s Social Tenure Domain Model took GPS coordinates of the land.

At the end of a three-month process, all 2,712 households had complete digital files, entered into a comprehensive database that CSRC shared with the government.

Describing her joy to be involved in CSRC’s pilot, local farmer Yasoda Neupane said: “We have been cultivating around one hectare of public land since 1978, without legal rights. Because of this, we have always been afraid of being evicted – we have been threatened by forest management authorities many times. Sometimes we have been charged as encroachers. So I need the right to this land to be safe and for my children’s future.”

Watch a short video capturing the community participatory land mapping process used by CSRC. This is also available on IIED's YouTube channel.

To ensure government buy-in and support, CSRC invited government officials to all community meetings. Municipal and ward officials also helped collect data, verify information and provide missing information. And, to address those landless families that had no land at all or were illegally farming on government land, CSRC also supported Dangisaran municipality to map its lands and identify areas where landless families could be settled and given formal, long-term leases to farm. 

Making a land use plan and drafting bylaws for good governance

As part of this process, CSRC has led Dangisaran community members through 'visioning' (PDF) and 'valuation' (PDF) activities  pioneered by Namati. In large ward-level dialogues, community members identified concerns about the rapid conversion of agricultural lands to other uses; a decline in available water pumps to harness ground water available in ponds and rivers; and the negative impacts that commercial pesticides and chemical fertilisers are having on their lands and ecosystem. 

Through these exercises, community members came to understand the value of the diverse natural resources they gather daily from their local forests, as well as how those resources’ availability and abundance is in decline.

Together with municipal officials, community members are now working on a land use plan that sets aside much more land for communal use. As part of the plan, the municipality is planning to set aside more land for communal forests; to formally protect communal grazing areas and ponds; to create recreation areas for children, and to set aside land for other communal purposes  community members identify as necessary for local prosperity and wellbeing.

The municipality is also drafting bylaws to govern local land use, and – as a result of the visioning process – including rules to reduce farmers’ dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilisers. 

Potential for scaling up at the national level

Positively, the Nepali government’s support for such efforts goes far beyond officials within Dangisaran Municipality: the national government is keeping a close eye on this project for potential national scale-up.

Under the 2019 Land Act, municipal governments must identify landless and informal settlers, map municipal lands, identify land available for allocation to landless families and then follow through by allocating those lands to landless families.

CSRC’s pilot project may be the most effective and equitable way to scale implementation of the law. Officials from two more municipalities have already contracted CSRC to undertake land certification for thousands more families.

Contact

Jagat Deuja is former executive director at the Community Self-Reliance Centre (CSRC) 

Rachael Knight (rachael.knight@iied.org) is a senior associate in IIED's Natural Resources research group. She also created the visioning and valuation activities and trained CSRC in their use. 

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