By Jenna DiPaolo Colley, Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI)
Secure, legally-recognized land and forest rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities are vital to mitigating climate change, securing sustainable development, preventing conflict, and reducing poverty. It is also a core human right for up to 2.5 billion people who customarily hold and use land around the world.
Data on the customary lands of local communities is crucial to advocacy efforts, securing legal recognition of communities’ land and resource rights, and measuring global progress on this critical issue. Accordingly, RRI has been tracking forest tenure rights – the amount of forestland legally owned by or designated for Indigenous Peoples and local communities – since 2002, and recently expanded our dataset to examine all lands.
Our tenure tracking relies heavily on government data, yet such data is often unavailable or published infrequently due to lack of resources or low transparency. Even in countries where the distribution of urban and agricultural lands is well-documented, there may be little information pertaining to forests and even less on the extent of local communities’ rights to manage and own the forests they have lived in for generations.
RRI’s tenure tracking analyses also examine the content and strength of specific kinds of forest tenure rights that are recognized as belonging to local communities under national legislation; the rights analyzed are often referred to as communities’ “bundle of rights”. Even if laws relevant to communities’ forest tenure are posted online or made accessible in-country, they may not be available in the languages spoken by impacted communities, or in the languages of other national and international actors who work on land issues. Obtaining land laws in a particular country is far easier today than it was ten or fifteen years ago, but much could be done to increase the availability of up-to-date legislation, and to facilitate development actors’ abilities to track the evolution of land tenure regimes around the world.
Non-government stakeholders have recognized these obstacles. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization provides the most comprehensive global assessment of forest ownership through the Global Forest Resources Assessment, and includes information on lands formally held by Indigenous Peoples. However, the Assessment is updated only every 5 years, and its scope is confined to the data submitted by countries.
Civil society organizations are helping to fill this gap by compiling data on indigenous and community forests. RRI is one of a number of institutions supporting LandMark, the world’s first interactive global platform displaying maps of lands collectively held by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Landmark seeks to bring together the best available data on community land rights from governments, communities, and CSOs into one globally-comparable map. The open-source publication of community-land maps can serve as a tool to prevent governments from claiming that community lands are uninhabited, or from signing community land away to foreign investors.
Providing accessible mechanisms for local communities to map and register their own lands is a key first step. However, community mapping processes must be approached with caution, as land mapping can be a politically contentious process in and of itself. Some communities themselves worry about the implications of their spatial data being shared publicly. Community-mapping may exacerbate local tensions between communities related to land disputes or widen existing frictions between the land claims of communities and governments. While some governments have banned communities from engaging in this process, we believe that communities should have the rights to demarcate their territory if they so choose.
Landmark has grappled with how to ensure community privacy and protection in publishing spatial data on the boundaries of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ lands. They therefore only share information that is already publicly available, or that is voluntarily provided by communities, organizations, researchers, and other individuals; data provided by communities is protected under a data-sharing agreement.
In an increasingly globalized world, the ability of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to receive legally recognized rights to their land and resources would be significantly furthered by a climate of available, verifiable data that can be accessed by a variety of local, national, and international stakeholders.
Local, national, and global-level initiatives to document and share information on community lands will be crucial to gaining an accurate understanding of forest and land ownership that can inform policymakers, private sector actors, and local communities alike.