Headline: “The commons need active support, otherwise we will lose them to investors”

Tenure rights to ‘commons’ — communally shared lands, forests and water — are increasingly contested as growing populations and ineffective governance exert increasing pressure on natural resources. Last week, African countries invited researchers and representatives of civil society to take joint steps towards adapting to resource scarcity and preventing land-related conflict. The African Land Policy Initiative hosted its first Africa Land Conference at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 11 to 14 November 2014. In a plenary session for policy-makers, Bernadata Mushashu, a member of the Pan-African Parliament, emphasised the need for joint action: “Land is the most valuable thing that our people have. We need to work collaboratively.” She urged scientists to actively communicate their knowledge: “Please translate research papers and simplify them.”

Protection of cultural and economic values needs to enter political agenda

Particularly in countries with no national land ownership registry, the demarcation and registration of community rights to land can be a tremendous boost to securing access to food and sustainable resource management. At a side event hosted by the IASS, IASS Secretary-General Alexander Müller, who spearheaded the negotiations on the responsible governance of tenure at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), emphasised that policy-makers should pay particular attention to the commons because “their cultural and social potential as well as their economic value must not be underestimated.” The efforts of the African Land Policy Initiative to develop a regional strategy for dealing with large-scale international investments in food, minerals and biomass are timely, as investments have to provide for the livelihood security of local populations. This is especially true of regions where 70 per cent of the extreme poor live in rural areas, which are typically favoured by foreign investors.

During the IASS side event, 60 policy-makers, internationally recognised experts and civil society organisations working on land tenure and collective rights presented their valuable perspectives on the need to secure tenure rights to commons. Andrew Hilton from the FAO referred to the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT) and the Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa (F&G). He argued that both documents acknowledge the legitimacy of tenure rights, including those to commons, and “once you recognise legitimate tenure rights, then there is the implicit duty to protect and safeguard these rights.”

Strategies to support and protect collective tenure

In conjunction with the Africa Land Conference, the IASS Global Soil Forum also organised a two day-workshop on strategies for securing collectively-owned and -managed natural resources, i.e. land, fisheries and forests. Thirty participants from thirteen African countries, Europe, and the USA participated in the regional consultation which took place from 10 to 11 November 2014 in Addis Ababa. In all African countries represented, the absence of national land registers is leading to the infringement of use rights. For example, Fernando Songane from the NGO Centro Terra Viva in Mozambique said that in his country “the government did a good job in designing a land law with the participation of civil society. But now the commons need active support if we do not want to lose our natural resources to international investors.”

During the workshop, the participants identified the need to map and register the boundaries of local communities at national level. They suggested that governments should decentralise and recognise communities as legal entities and collective owners of territories, a process that has already happened in Tanzania. In this way, local complexities can be understood, argued Shadrack Omondi from the Kenya-based Resource Conflict Institute (RECONCILE). Even though implementation lags behind, the law-making process in Kenya was considered good practice by the participants. Among other things, the land law allows for the election of local land committees, which are recognised as state authorities at local level. Within this framework, communities are free to retain their customary rules as long as elections are free and equal and the committee regularly provides updates on land use planning to the national authorities.

The regional consultation workshop aimed to gather input for the Technical Guide on Tenure Rights Related to the Commons, which the IASS is currently working on. The purpose of this guide, which was commissioned by the FAO, is to support the uptake of the VGGT at national level.

Photos: © IASS