13 July 2022
Secure Land Rights to Restore Nature and Improve Livelihoods for All
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
story highlights

Before investing in land degradation neutrality projects and other restoration efforts, it is vital to document the land rights of those living in the targeted areas.

Progress in achieving land degradation neutrality and ecosystem restoration more generally demands coordination between governments, civil society, and local communities.

With a shared focus on building resilient ecosystems, the UNCCD, UNFCCC, and CBD must together ensure that they include safeguards in their policy and institutional frameworks to manage the inevitable trade-offs that will arise.

By Alexander Müller, Managing Director, TMG Think Tank for Sustainability, Andrea Meza Murillo, Deputy Executive Secretary, UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and Jes Weigelt, Head of Programmes, TMG Think Tank for Sustainability

It has been five years since the last review of SDG 15 (life on land), and we are fast approaching the mid-way point in the final decade of the 2030 Agenda. The UN Secretary General’s progress report shows the world is not on track to achieve real progress for the planet and people. Thus, this year’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) posed the central question: “what concrete measures can help reshape the human-nature relationship and set development on a more sustainable path?”

The latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI 2022) report estimates that as many as 828 million people experienced hunger in 2021, representing a rise of approximately 150 million in food-insecure people since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Extreme poverty remains at pre-pandemic levels. Biodiversity is being lost at alarming rates, as is the global forest cover. The second edition of the Global Land Outlook shows that up to 40% of all ice-free land is already degraded, and stresses that we need to build social and human capital to effectively leverage finance to restore natural capital.

We need just transitions to achieve food security and fight poverty and, at the same time, protect and restore land and ecosystems on which all life on earth depends. To secure livelihoods and restore nature, the UNCCD and TMG emphasize that recognition of legitimate land tenure rights is a linchpin to that end. Furthermore, secure tenure creates the space for land users to innovate and scale up sustainable land management (SLM) practices and engage in land restoration efforts.

The recent HLPF side event, ‘Just Transitions towards Land Degradation Neutrality,’ organized by the UNCCD and TMG, brought together experts and practitioners from around the world to discuss the way forward.

A global consensus

Following more than five years of negotiations, the Committee on World Food Security unanimously endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Forest and Fisheries (VGGT) in 2012. It is noteworthy that the VGGT were developed in response to land grabs around the world that were linked to the 2008 food crisis. Now, as then, the overarching reason for implementing the VGGT is to “achieve food security for all and to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food.”

UNCCD parties adopted a landmark decision on land tenure in 2019, which was reaffirmed at the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in May 2022. The latest decision recognizes that “who owns land, who has rights to use land and natural resources and how secure these rights are significantly influences the way that land is managed.”

These two decisions therefore represent a major step forward in advancing rights-based approaches to achieve SDG target 15.3 on land degradation neutrality (LDN), as well as targets on poverty reduction, food security, and gender equality. The recent launch of the UNCCD and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) Technical Guide on the Integration of the VGGT into the Implementation of the UNCCD – to which TMG contributed – is a concrete step towards linking human rights (and especially the right to food), to large-scale restoration programmes.

Inclusive land governance opens spaces for local action

Progressive global policy frameworks – such as the VGGT and UNCCD land tenure decisions – can provide an important impetus for SDG implementation. However, this requires matching aspirations to the realities of those who are most threatened by desertification, land degradation, and drought.

Before investing in LDN projects and other restoration efforts, it is vital to document the land rights of those living in the targeted areas. The importance of this step can hardly be overstated as it helps to avoid land conflicts and contributes to the sustainability of restoration efforts.

While securing legitimate land tenure rights can be a lengthy process, local governments can benefit from social innovations created by grassroots and civil society organizations (CSOs), as experience in Burkina Faso and Kenya shows. The key message is that there are locally grown solutions to secure legitimate land tenure rights, which could be scaled. The magnitude of the challenge should not force us to wait for large-scale national programmes to address the question of secure tenure.

Systematic support to grassroots and local CSOs – often through representative organizations, such as federations – is one key pathway to make restoration progress and secure legitimate tenure rights.

National governments are key to connect global aspirations to local actions

While local innovations and community-based initiatives are critical, there is a need for an enabling environment to scale and sustain them. For example, governments often assume a key role in localizing LDN targets, ensuring the democratic space for civil society to operate in, and – once social innovations have demonstrated impact – design policies and programmes to scale up these innovations.

TMG’s work with the governments of Benin, Kenya, Madagascar, and Malawi offers practical insights on how to advance responsible land governance in day-to-day restoration efforts. The project has mapped previously undocumented legitimate land tenure rights of communities living in LDN priority areas as a first step towards securing their rights to forest land and resources. These findings will inform future LDN implementation in these countries.

It is the government’s obligation to progressively implement people’s rights and to achieve national restoration targets. This obligation cannot be transferred to other actors. Yet, the scale of the challenge requires different actors working together while assuming different, but complementary roles. Progress in achieving LDN and ecosystem restoration more generally demands coordination between these three levels. Calls for multi-level and polycentric approaches are part of the vocabulary of all of us who work towards achieving the SDGs. The findings of our side event suggest specific responsibilities for actors at each level that are mutually reinforcing.

Range of Climate Impacts and Anticipated Risks to Society and Nature

Women often have fewer options than men to access land and other natural resources. TMG hast partnered with Groupe de Recherche et d’action sur le Fonciere (GRAF) in Burkina Faso to facilitate intra-household transfer of land use rights from male to female household members. Photo by GRAF

Outlook: land governance for biodiversity, climate action, and land degradation neutrality

The UNCCD is the first Rio Convention to explicitly recognize the critical role of responsible land governance in creating safe spaces for local innovation and investment in restoration actions that ultimately benefit people and the planet. With a shared focus on building resilient ecosystems, all three Conventions – the UNCCD, the UNFCCC, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – must ensure that they include safeguards in their policy and institutional frameworks to manage the inevitable trade-offs that will arise. These insights will need to be considered at the upcoming meetings of the COPs of the biodiversity and climate conventions to enhance synergistic implementation for people, nature, and the climate.

TMG Research gGmbH and the UNCCD co-hosted the HLPF 2022 side event, ‘Just Transitions towards Land Degradation Neutrality,’ on 7 July.

UNCCD and TMG speakers will further expand on these topics in the context of a Global Landscapes Forum Event on 15 July.

The work of TMG Research gGmbH benefits from financial contributions of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ).

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