The world is facing a climate emergency; signals can be seen everywhere and the international community and national governments are not ready to mitigate or adapt to it. Evidence shows that the poorest are already affected and will be hit the hardest. In view of the urgency of the situation and the existential threats vulnerable and marginal communities are facing, words often appear an insufficient response (“We need action not words”). Yet, actions need to be guided and words provide an opportunity to strengthen a global consensus. Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification have the opportunity to choose the right words, to choose language that will support nature-based solutions to climate change. Without an agreement on efficient safeguards, action on mitigation and adaptation can have severe negative side effects. Parties to the convention must use this opportunity at the upcoming Conference of the Parties of the UNCCD.

The recent IPCC special report on Climate Change and Land leaves no scope for doubt on either the immediate threat that the climate emergency is posing to our societies or the pivotal role that land use has to adapt to it. Actions to reverse land degradation and to restore ecosystems for climate change adaptation depend on access to extension services. They also depend on access to finance and on secure land tenure. This enabling environment for nature-based solutions is more often absent than present. In fact, its absence often constitutes the core of communities’ vulnerabilities. This is a well-known fact that makes it ever more astonishing that there are so few investments in creating this enabling environment. At the same time, this fact makes a resolution on land tenure at the upcoming UNCCD COP so important.

Responsibilities for programmes to combat desertification and land degradation, ecosystem restoration more generally, and land governance tend to lie in different ministries and different government agencies. A resolution on land tenure and land degradation neutrality can help to bridge these gaps.

Responsible land governance enables land degradation neutrality and ecosystem restoration

The evidence on the importance of secure land rights for the sustainable use of natural resources is compelling – for readers interested in the details, the CGIAR’s research programme on “Collective Action and Property Rights” is a recommended starting point. Secure land rights provide an incentive to invest. Measures to restore ecosystems tend to have high investment costs in the beginning while benefits accrue in the long run. Agroforestry is a prime example for a nature-based solution. Trees on farms make livelihoods more resilient to extreme climate events. Yet, it takes time before a farmer can reap the benefits from a tree that s/he has planted. If there is insecurity about whether the benefits from the efforts of planting trees will actually be reaped, a farmer might choose not to plant trees. And land rights make the difference!

Cultural norms on land use prohibit certain land uses. Migrant communities are often prohibited from investments in land that might be understood as claims to the land. In effect, they might choose not to invest. Women are particularly disadvantaged. The absence of secure land rights leaves them in a position in which their investments in land accrue to others (see an earlier IISD guest article on this).

While land tenure is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient condition. Other elements of an enabling environment matter as well. Yet, without secure land tenure, the basic condition for investments is missing. Responsible land governance enables investments in land and ecosystem restoration.

Responsible land governance is key to do no harm in land degradation neutrality programmes

The experience of REDD programmes shows that the best intended investments can come with negative side effects. Indigenous communities and human rights defenders insisted on safeguards for very good reasons! Parties to the UNCCD must build on these experiences and agree on strong safeguards for LDN investments. This is particularly acute for the following two reasons:

First, advances in soil organic carbon measurement through remote sensing technologies make soil organic carbon increasingly interesting as a climate change mitigation option – even if there are still questions regarding the permanence of carbon in the soils. Investments in land and soil for the purpose of climate change mitigation are likely to follow in due course. Second, there is a strong interest in private financing for land and ecosystem restoration. While these investments are in large part still due to materialize, they are very likely to come with expectations on rates of return on investment. These are easier to achieve through large-scale investments. Experience with large-scale investments in land use change demonstrates that these do not necessarily take into account the needs of smallholder farmers.

In short, responsible land governance is key to do no harm and to achieve people-centered outcomes of LDN programmes.

Parties to the Convention can build on agreed language and empirically proven entry points to include land governance in land restoration programmes

UNCCD COP 14 can build on agreed language on responsible land governance that can and should serve as a basis for a UNCCD COP resolution. First of all, there are the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Forests, and Fisheries in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT). The VGGT have been unanimously adopted by the United Nations Committee on World Food Security. They set out principles for rights-based land governance that address all aspects of land governance that are pertinent to land and ecosystem restoration. In addition, there are regional agreements like, for example, the Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa. Further relevant agreements are the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights – and the Right to Food within the covenant – and ILO convention 169. The UNCCD COP resolution on land tenure and land degradation neutrality would link these agreements to land degradation neutrality.

From the point of view of project implementation, there are often doubts whether land governance interventions can be included in land and ecosystem restoration programmes. Whether land governance is not “too political” and the resulting programmes “too complex to handle”. The answers to these concerns come at two different levels. Yes, addressing land rights is an issue that is deeply entrenched in power relations. At the same time, how many additional meta analyses should be conducted to conclude that adoption of sustainable land management hinges upon land tenure and other elements of the enabling environment? Everybody who is concerned about the sustainability of ecosystem restoration and land degradation neutrality needs to address land governance. One way or the other. At the same time, investments in land governance in the context of land restoration programmes should not be equated with large-scale titling programmes or the reform of cadaster systems. There are smaller scale options available to address land governance in ecosystem restoration programmes. The recently concluded Global Soil Week 2019 in Nairobi analyzed project interventions in sustainable land management from across the African continent. The transfer of land use rights to women within the household or within the community, the recognition of community-developed land use plans by statutory government bodies are just two examples. Yet, they show that investments in responsible land governance do not necessarily imply corresponding large-scale investments in cadaster reforms, land titling programmes or the like.

If not us, who? If not now, when?

The July 2019 session of the High-level Political Forum concluded by emphasizing the urgency to accelerate progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. If words are not to lose their meaning, parties to the UNCCD must use the opportunity to adopt an ambitious resolution on land tenure that has the potential to truly accelerate progress on ecosystem restoration. It would be a much-needed commitment in order to leave no one behind; words that are at a high risk to become shallow. This would also set the tone for the upcoming United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Action and SDG summits.

This article was authored by Jes Weigelt and Alexander Mueller, TMG. ThinkTank for Sustainability.