In the leadup to upcoming international climate talks, farmers in the coastal regions of Bangladesh are emphasizing the importance of robust and well-documented land rights in the face of the multiple climate change disasters that have adversely impacted their lives and livelihoods. Spearheaded by the Association for Land Reform (ALRD) in Bangladesh, and the Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ANGOC), with the support of the Land Portal Foundation and the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR), a social media and information campaign has been underway to amplify their voices on the issue. This time around, we have taken collective action to ensure that climate policy discourse will not neglect the crucial role land rights play in building climate resilience of one of the most vulnerable populations. You can learn more, and contribute, by using hashtags #IfOnlyTheEarthCouldSpeak #landmatters #land4climate #COP28 and by following us on Twitter.
Up to 70% of slum residents in Bangladesh have moved due to environmental challenges
Bangladesh is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. Sitting on the floodplains of major rivers, Bangladesh’s geographical location, land characteristics and monsoon climate makes the country particularly vulnerable. The number of Bangladeshis displaced by the varied impacts of climate change, almost 5% of the country’s total population, is set to reach 7.1 million by 2050, according to the FAO. While the projected numbers are staggering, this is not news. Bangladesh has historically been hard hit by climate change; between 1980 and 2008, it experienced a total of 219 natural disasters.
According to the International Organization for Migration, up to 70% of slum residents in Bangladesh have moved due to environmental challenges such as these. This makes it the country’s number-one driver of internal migration, according to a World Bank report. They cite that the trade-offs for being closer to a stable source of income and livelihood include precarious health, education and security.
Perhaps it is a sense of protracted frustration, and fear, that has pushed residents in remote villages of rural Bangladesh to protect the environment on which they are dependent, in order to be able to remain in the place they call home. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, thousands of residents could be seen protesting against government plans to repair dams that impeded them from cultivating the land that provides their livelihoods. This, in a place where the impacts of climate change have already had disastrous effects on the lives of rural farmers. A government official cited their lack of clear land ownership documents as a barrier to residents being able to adequately advocate for their rights. Residents in turn say “We beg you all, please don’t take our land. We will never give up our land.”
A ‘sense of home’ an important element in dealing with post climate disaster trauma
When Cyclone Aila hit in 2009, and when Cyclone Ampha again ravaged the region in 2020, Amjad Hossain of Pratapnagar village was faced with thoughts of migration and displacement, not once, but twice. Being a land owner did not change the fact that frequent cyclones and high tides in the area rendered much of his land unproductive, with most of it being submerged under salt water for years post disaster. As is the case for the majority of his neighbours, Mr. Hossain’s land has become largely unproductive. Despite the risks and repercussions to his livelihood, having proper title to land is ultimately what dissuaded him and his family from relocating.
Photo taken by Rafiqul Islam
Landlessness (or a lack of land rights) can often be considered both the cause and the effect of poverty of the majority of rural households in Bangladesh. But do those with secure, documented access to tenure really fare better when it comes to post-disaster recovery and resilience?
“Those who do not have their own land cannot stay because not only are they now left without a means of livelihood, staying in a place where they have no legal recourse and rights can actually leave them worse off. Being able to show proof of land ownership is essential in securing credit for reconstruction, and in receiving social services offered by the government following climate disasters. Finally, something we can all relate to, are the psychological benefits that come from having ‘a sense of home’. Having a safe place to return to is critical for families and communities in these situations.”says Bulbul Ahmed, Program Officer at ALRD.
According to an IISD report which addresses various aspects of land ownership after natural disasters, being able to prove land ownership via basic documentation such as identity cards, or death certificates for the purposes of inheritance is an unexplored aspect of disaster relief efforts. Loss of this type of documentation, along with the different and at times conflicting types of law under which claims may fall—be it formal, customary or religious— makes it more difficult for authorities to address land issues in an appropriate manner.
Digitizing land records provides one possible solution, but is not a panacea
Digitization of land records is critical for supporting land administration for sustainable development, as comprehensive land information systems have become not only important for recording land records, but much more broadly form the basis for the provision of land-related services (for example, digitized land records are essential for restitution of various rights after disasters such as floods). An increasing number of stakeholders and initiatives are now prioritizing land data, while communities and Indigenous organizations are also recognizing the critical role of land data, and as such asserting their rights over it.
“Communities around the world are increasingly staking a claim to their land-related data. In the case of climate disasters, there is an increased awareness that such data can not only help communities ensure that their rights to land are secured in the post-disaster response, but that this can also help them in asserting their rights to various essential land or social services that are available to them. Instead of perceiving themselves as passive recipients of social aid, with the help of data that proves their land rights, they now have a renewed sense of agency in what can often be an arduous process of recovery.” says Charl-Thom Bayer, Senior Land Information Specialist at the Land Portal.
Digitizing land rights is not a panacea for land administration or land governance problems. Land data initiatives are also not immune from the larger influences of politics and power, and while data is neutral, data custodians are often very much part of the political, social and economic processes. Thus, while digitizing land data is a critical tool in protecting communities' land rights against the dangers of climate induced migration, these initiatives need to carefully consider the expected outcomes and invest in broader interventions to mitigate against the misuse of data.
Protecting vital records in the face of natural disasters is critical to guaranteeing an array of rights and services. While land data and digital records may help mitigate risks and protect interests, it is necessary to understand the sociopolitical contexts and the aspects of data justice and equity in the land data ecosystem.
Land tenure security is one of the best incentives for the rural poor to adopt measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change
Climate-change induced disasters and communities’ responses to protect themselves and design solutions have become a top priority on the climate agenda. At the center of mitigation and adaptation discussions have been urban populations, particularly in informal settlements. At the same time, the rural poor with limited or no secure access to land tend to be overlooked.