Their land, our future: To arrest the climate crisis, we need a democratic overhaul (commentary) | Land Portal | Securing Land Rights Through Open Data
  • Both the climate crisis and inequality require a democratic overhaul. And governments globally should start by turning over legal control of land and natural resources to local communities and indigenous land users. Their rights are key to survival for all of us.
  • Increasing evidence shows that the groups who have the least voice in decisions about natural resources (women, youth, indigenous groups, and smallholder farmers) are best placed to sustainably manage those resources. Local communities and indigenous groups rely directly on forests and agriculture for a living, and manage approximately 65 percent of the world’s land. We cannot address climate change and feed a growing global population without sustainable practices in forestry and soil management.
  • Humanity’s future depends on those of us with greater power and privilege calling for action — right now — on what is both just and effective: land rights that favor people and planet over profit and power.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The global climate change conference (COP25) kicks off in Madrid today, instead of in Santiago, Chile, where escalating protests pushed the Chilean government to step down as COP25 hosts. The unrest in Chile boiled up from a deep well of resentment over economic inequality.

Ironically and tragically — for Chileans, for COP25, for all of us — the same economic drivers causing protests in Santiago are also driving the planet toward the climate brink.

The answer? Both the climate crisis and inequality require a democratic overhaul. And governments globally should start by turning over legal control of land and natural resources to local communities and indigenous land users. Their rights are key to survival for all of us.

recent study published in BioScience (endorsed by 11,000 scientists from around the globe) and the IPCC’s new report on land are part of a growing consensus: the rights of the 2.5 billion people who live closest to the earth are central to both impacts and solutions for the climate crisis. Both publications highlight that preserving forests and restoring degraded agricultural land is crucial, and both identify rural land users as the group that can achieve this.

Increasing evidence shows that the groups who have the least voice in decisions about natural resources (women, youth, indigenous groups, and smallholder farmers) are best placed to sustainably manage those resources. Local communities and indigenous groups rely directly on forests and agriculture for a living, and manage approximately 65 percent of the world’s land. We cannot address climate change and feed a growing global population without sustainable practices in forestry and soil management.

But less than 10 percent of rural and indigenous land is legally recognized — leaving these communities vulnerable to powerful forces seeking land for extractivesinfrastructure and development, and even biofuel. Without rights to property that we in the developed world take for granted, these communities lack the security to invest in their land.

The BioScience study also calls out the crucial need to curb global population growth, and points to a central fact of development — when women are empowered, birth rates in developing economies decline. This includes the marginalized rural women who make up 25 percent of humanity and half of the communities managing rural land. And what’s one of the most fundamental ways to empower rural women, enabling them to choose when to have children, and how many? Secure their land rights.


Women tend farmland in Burundi. Photo by Deborah Espinosa.

Humanity’s future depends on those of us with greater power and privilege calling for action — right now — on what is both just and effective: land rights that favor people and planet over profit and power.

Land rights are urgently needed and singularly effective

Indigenous women and communitiesenvironmental human rights defenders, and land rights activists globally have been calling for land rights justice for decades. These communities have been at the losing end of globalization for centuries, and they face powerful and violent forces: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro actively seeks to displace indigenous populations; women environmental defenders face constant threats, and many are killed; and rural rights to land globally, especially women’s rights, are still routinely violated or curtailed. Without gender-equitable rule of law on land, the land management needed for climate action becomes impossible or dangerous.

But conversely, securing rights to land for rural users has ripple effects. It allows them to invest in solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation: soil rehabilitation, tree planting, irrigation, biodiversity conservation, and other climate-smart practices.

Putting power in the hands of women and youth is especially crucial. Development solutions, including climate action approaches, have often portrayed women and girls as helpers, but women too often lack real authority. It’s time for that to change. Women are often more willing to take on new agricultural techniques or clean tech solutions, and to see the value of sustainable practices, giving a faster foothold to these solutions. And the global “youth bulge” must not be ignored in the climate fight. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, engaging youth in climate action focused on agriculture is a key approach for peace and security, economic opportunity, and food security, as well as climate action.

The current migrant crisis is an early climate warning

It has been widely reported and repeatedly verified that climate change is a major driver of the international migration crisis. This is true for the migrants at the US border. Hunger caused by climate change has interacted with violence and weak governance in Central America, leaving thousands with a stark choice: leave or starve. And this is also true for migrants at the southern borders of Europe, fleeing hunger and poverty caused by climate change in West Africa and the Middle East; it was true for those fleeing drought in Syria — climate change drove migration, and was a “threat multiplier” for the ensuing years of conflict, making desperate farmers more susceptible to ISIS recruitment.

Today, 70.8 million people globally are forced migrants, fleeing climate change as well as war, persecution, and disaster. These causes are interlinked, but the UN estimates that climate change alone will forcibly displace another 200 million people by 2050. And these estimates may be low in light of the most recent information about the pace of climate change.


A woman heads back from the fields in Shan State, Myanmar. Photo by Susan Fan, PhotoPhilanthropy.

Climate change is not a future, looming threat; we are mid-disaster. Governments globally are not on track to curb and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change effects are accelerating toward the brink of “tipping points” that will create a “hot-house earth,” leaving large areas of the planet uninhabitable.

This is a profound global justice issue in addition to being a global crisis — and women and other marginalized groups are already hit hardest. Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, said in a report published in June:

We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer. Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction. Many will have to choose between starvation and migration.

Investment in rural areas, with land rights as a foundation, are an urgently needed and proven way to address the hunger and poverty driving migration worldwide.

A compassionate and sustainable response to climate change is possible—and imperative

We can choose an effective and compassionate alternative to the rise in nationalism and xenophobia in the US and around the world in response to migration — to what is only the beginning of suffering caused and exacerbated by climate change. The majority of us in the US see the climate change crisis more clearly. We can promote real democracy by elevating the leadership and realizing the rights of women and marginalized groups around the world already fighting to solve the climate crisis and protect their lands and livelihoods.

We are becoming more clear-eyed and more vocal, especially young people in the developed world, those of us who are, in Greta Thunberg’s words, “the lucky ones.” Our leaders must know that our demand for climate action is unavoidable, and that actions to promote corporate profits and the fossil fuel industry come at the expense of our future, and so at the expense of our votes. We can advocate relentlessly for policies that address climate change as a holistic global issue, that recognize the humanity and realize the rights of everyone, no matter their nationality, and demand alternatives to development that ignores or de-prioritizes climate action and human rights.

The democratic overhaul the world needs now

As COP25 kicks off in Madrid, democratic upheaval in Chile continues. In a world where growing democratic pushback to inequality and the growing impacts of climate change are constants, we aren’t helpless. We can create solid ground for ourselves as one human family.

If rights to land are secure globally, rural land users can root themselves. They can make a living. This changes the landscape of options for every potential migrant to the US, for every impoverished farmer vulnerable to ISIS or Al Shabab recruitment. Land rights can ensure stability and safety for every woman and girl who embodies and defends local and indigenous knowledge and rights. Multiplied across the globe, these opportunities could arrest and reverse the climate crisis and the migration crisis, help achieve global peace and security, and realize human dignity for all.

For billions of people today, land means dignity and opportunity. For all of us, their dignity and opportunity means survival and security. It’s up to each of us to make clear that an effective and justice-oriented solution to climate change — secure land rights for rural land users — is the one we demand now.


Women harvest paddy in West Bengal, India. Photo by Suprio Chatterjee.

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