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Africa’s Indigenous Fighting a Global Issue – Land Rights

The slowdown of land rights recognition has become a global issue, nowhere more so than in sub-Saharan Africa where a new report by the Rights and Resources Initiative has found that the recognition of local land rights slowed considerably since 2008 and the few land tenure laws that have been passed in the last six years are weaker and recognize fewer rights.

The report titled: “What future for Reform? Progress and slowdown in forest tenure reform since 2002” is the third in a series of analyses tracking the transition in statutory forest tenure since 2002. The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) is a coalition of 140 organizations working on forest tenure and market reforms.

Amongst the report’s findings, was that while many Indigenous Peoples and local communities believe that forests belong to them under locally defined systems of customary tenure, “in most countries…governments have claimed ownership of much of the forest estate through historical processes of expropriation and those claims have been formalized in statutory laws. While governments are increasingly recognizing local ownership and control of forests, forest tenure arrangements remain in dispute or unclear in many places, including low, middle and high income countries.”

Andy White, president of the Rights and Resources Initiative and chief contributor to the report, said that the findings did not come as a surprise given that, with the increase in land value, a greater hesitation by government to recognize local land rights came into play.

White added that although Indigenous Peoples have made progress in many areas, this has not translated into political power in the development discourse, given that “business interests …dominates in the natural resources sector and is very difficult to dislodge.”

“There’s been an increase in rights for Indigenous Peoples and land rights is a part of human rights and there’s been an increase in that, in particular in Latin America. There’s a growing awareness to local indigenous control given Indigenous People’s ability to grow and conserve forests better than governments or the private sector.”

However, while Latin America leads, the picture in sub-Saharan Africa with regards to local Indigenous Peoples land ownership shows that, just six percent of forests are under community control – and none are community owned, according to the RRI report.

Indigenous People’s Rights Program Manager at the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), Delme Cupido said in response to the RRI reports findings: “In general, of course, it is now widely recognized that community ownership over land is intrinsic to the survival of Indigenous Peoples’ culture, their livelihoods and their existence as peoples, as well as being a successful and proven means of protecting biodiversity. It is worrying, therefore, given the continued threats to indigenous communities, and poor communities in Africa generally, that recognition of local land rights seems to be declining. This demonstrates that advocates for indigenous and local communities continue to press for the enactment and implementation of laws which recognize the full array of rights of communities to secure land tenure.”

Meanwhile, White pointed out that even though the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples exists, many governments have not come close to implementation.

White explained: “The slowdown in the recognition of land rights is truly a global crisis. It undermines our ability to deal with poverty and even climate change, which happens when governments promote deforestation. When local people’s rights are being abused it puts at risk on all of us and leads to the abuse of natural resources which affects all of us.”

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