Defending Land Rights in a Rapidly Changing and Unequal World: Departing Reflections from Board of Director Dr. Ritu Verma | Land Portal

1. Can you tell us how you became so engaged in the Land Portal? Why were you so committed to the development of Land Portal over the years?

I have worked on land rights for two and a half decades, so to be engaged with the Land Portal was a natural and organic progression, especially given the increasing important role of knowledge and information sharing in defending and ensuring people’s rights to land. I have been, and will continue to be committed to the work of the Land Portal because of what it stands for: the equality of and access to critically valuable information, especially on time-sensitive situations where people are on the brink of losing their land rights, and where information plays a vital role in defending those rights. Defending the rights of farmers, pastoralists and indigenous people in the Global South is an important issue to me, and for those whose very survival, livelihoods, identity, culture, and connection to nature vital to combatting climate change depends on the land they live on. What concerns me is that there has recently been a problematic era of dispossession of land and land rights driven by powerful actors over the past decades, including the infamous land grabbing efforts by large corporations, foreign nation states, and elite actors, which requires urgent action and our urgent attention. While academic and scholarly peer-reviewed articles and research are incredibly important in documenting and analyzing these trends, they also take time. The importance of the Land Portal is that it provides a time-sensitive and immediate platform for sharing information “live”. This could make the difference between defending one’s land, or losing it entirely.

In addressing these issues, the Land Portal is a small, agile and global platform that punches way above its weight. I am very proud of the work and progress we have collectively achieved over the past six years, as a team. This includes the Land Portal team, its contributors, consultants, users, and my fellow Board Members.

 

2. What did you see as the major obstacles and constraints the Land Portal had to face during its journey?

The Land Portal has done an incredible job in overcoming obstacles and constraints over the years during its journey. Some of these included, as with any non-profit start-up of this nature, funding and resource mobilization in a context of an evolving donor and land rights landscape. Moving from a small project to a highly successful and now firmly established online portal came with a few challenges, such as the needs for institutional building, transitioning to permanent staff, and ensuring the longevity and funding of the institution over time, especially in the case where staff are spread across the world in different time zones and locations. The covid19 pandemic provided both opportunities (to move to online events and knowledge sharing) and challenges (the inability of Board members and staff to meet in-person over long periods of time). Other challenges center on diversity, localization (especially in the Global South), and finding innovative ways to represent and share indigenous voices, timely information for situations where land rights are critical and time sensitive, and activist engagement with the climate crisis and indigenous people’s land rights. Balancing knowledge generation with an activist engagement has been, and will continue to be a central challenge, as it is with any development non-profit that focuses on knowledge-sharing. Remember that knowledge and power and inextricably intertwined, and when critical knowledge about land access and control is manipulated, threatened, or subverted, knowledge becomes a tool of the oppressor or for greed and wealth accumulation in the hands of the few. The Land Portal plays a key role in challenging this, and democratizing and decolonizing knowledge sharing for the benefit of everyone. Moving forward, another challenge as well as an amazing opportunity and commitment is to being at the cutting-edge of knowledge generation and creation.

This means thinking innovatively and out of the box research and action, and being at the forefront of leading issues such as the land-climate crisis nexus, indigenous people’s rights, and interface between land and decolonial and degrowth movements. I am happy to be writing a Land Portal blog on the last subject area.

3. What would you consider some major achievements of the Land Portal?

Before I joined as a Board member, the Land Portal started as a small project. I’m so proud of the work of the Land Portal over the past six years since I joined. We went from a position of operating from project to project, to a more stable institutional context of programs and core funding, and from a team of contract staff and consultants to a more secure and stable programmatic positions. We essentially went from projects to programmes. This is quite an achievement, and aside from the solid institutional position, it also means that the Land Portal is better to support those in the Global South in defending their land rights. The list of achievements is long, from institutional strengthening, including the many policies we wrote as part of the exercise of building the organization, to the wide-ranging webinars, trainings, and knowledge sharing/dissemination events and products. By becoming the leading go-to place for land rights information and knowledge sharing, the Land Portal has earned the respect and recognition from the entire land rights community. It is really well deserved. As a Board Member for six years, I have many key takeaway messages to share. First, for me, it has been an immensely rewarding professional and personal experience. I cannot help but re-iterate how proud I am of the work we’ve accomplished during this time.

Second, knowledge and information should know no boundaries. Knowledge can be shared across boundaries, borders, and oceans instantaneously – and maybe one day, across outer space! It can make the difference between respecting and retaining land rights, and having them breached and violated. Time-sensitive and live information- sharing on land rights is therefore critical. This makes the role of the Land Portal indispensable.

Third, the Land Portal team has evolved, grown, and strengthened their capacities, leadership skills, while coming into their own. I am incredibly proud of this.

Fourth, being a Board Member has been a wonderful experience for me too, and fellow Board Members have been great to work with. We came together from different corners of the land community, from academia, research, applied work, administration, geospatial, digital background, legal, etc., as well as with different identities and diversity backgrounds. What I’ve learned is that we need everyone working together in harmony to move forward. We’ve had great, profound debates too, but these are necessary, and part of the journey. I’ve learned to look at the bigger, more strategic picture. It’s been a deeply rewarding experience. As the Chair of the Board Inclusion and Diversity Committee, I am especially proud of the work we’re currently advancing on diversity and inclusion issues at the Land Portal.

Last, but not least, I want to take this opportunity wish the Land Portal team every success in moving forward with a stronger, diverse and innovative team in addressing cutting-edge issues over our time with a forward-thinking approach. In a rapidly changing world marked by widening socio-economic inequalities, the grab for resources including land by the super-elite, and the growing climate emergency, we need to think holistically about land and the multiple and overlapping rights associated with it, from a diversity of perspectives. What I mean here is that we cannot simply value land just as a commodity to be bought and sold – it is embedded in deeper meaning, cultural identity, connection to the ancestors, social values, history, spiritual and political-ecology, and of critical importance for the survival future generations, our planet, and all the sentient beings we share the Earth with. I will sincerely miss the Land Portal team, and will always be ready on hand to help in the journey going forward. I wish the Land Portal all the success in the world.

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