Why climate discussions must include land rights for the rural poor | Land Portal

This piece has been co-authored by the Land Portal Foundation, the GFAR, ANGOC and ALRD. 

// Photo credit: UN Women Asia and the Pacific


Land tenure security is one of the best incentives for the rural poor to adopt measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The lasting effects of ‘natural’ disasters are not exclusive to those who are tenure insecure.

When Kavita Sakar’s husband died in May 2009, she inherited an acre of farmland in their village in southern Bangladesh. It was small, but still a key asset and source of income for the mother of four. Unfortunately, she now only has a third of it left. 

She was forced to sell parts of the land to renovate her home after Cyclone Aila hit a few days after her husband’s death. Tidal surges and river erosion have also eaten away at some of it. And for the past three years, she has not been able to cultivate anything because it was submerged in saltwater following 2020’s Cyclone Amphan.  

“Natural hazards have increased our struggle for livelihood. I can’t depend on the land even if I have it,” she told us. 

Kavita’s plight is a testament to the long-lasting effects of ‘natural’ disasters, which are anything but. Even though she had secure tenure, she is now facing the prospect of losing her home and livelihood. This is neither a new nor isolated experience, but it is now compounded by the increasing frequency and severity of weather-related disasters, which scientists say is a consequence of climate change. 


How disasters magnify tenure insecurity

Weather-related disasters have long infringed on people’s rights to land, particularly those like Kavita who are living in rural and marginal areas. In fact, many others fare far worse. 

In 2013, weeks after Typhoon Haiyan devastated central Philippines, local media reported that thousands of families were blocked from rebuilding their homes after the land was claimed by a developer. The Stockholm Environment Institute also documented how feelings of land insecurity “dramatically increased” for farmers in some of the worst-affected areas, with some people struggling with an endless cycle of displacement. 

The impacts are not limited to developing nations either. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed New Orleans’ flood protection system in 2005, inundating 80% of the city, a lack of clear land titles shut out tens of thousands of people from accessing government support or rebuilding their homes. 

On the other hand, we know that land tenure security increases the resilience of communities, whether they are living in densely populated urban centres or vast, open rural areas. 


How tenure security can help

A paper by the African Economic Research Consortium found that in Malawi, land tenure security dampens the effects of drought shocks on rural households. Formalising land ownership and making it inclusive provide the strongest mitigation potential, the authors found, because such efforts are likely to improve farm productivity, mitigate the negative impacts of weather shocks, and enhance family welfare. 

In fact, the authors said land tenure security can “lead to a reduction in poverty, and promote growth and sustainable development in developing countries”. 

In the Brazilian Amazon too, policies that support Indigenous land rights can help stop deforestation and restore forests, which are key carbon sinks and regulators of local climate. A new study found that Indigenous territories with secure land rights not only reduce deforestation but also better restore deforested land than privately owned and unincorporated lands. 

How can the fact that land rights are recognized or not lead to such diametrically different outcomes? Because if people have ownership of land, they are much more likely to invest, whether it is to use better building materials that can withstand floods and quakes or install irrigation systems to ensure good yields. 

Particularly in the case of rural farming households, land tenure security influences their willingness to adapt to climate change. It also reduces the environmental degradation that often increases their vulnerability to natural disasters. 

Conversely, insecure, inequitable and/or opaque land ownership and tenure systems often force people to live in hazard-prone areas and to adopt unsustainable coping methods such as cutting down trees or degrading the land, which in turn kill functioning ecosystems, release planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, and boost the chances of devastating floods and droughts. 


A bleak future for those without secure tenure

Scientists have been very clear about what is in store for us in terms of climate change: unless we are able to rein in our emissions, we are going to see more and more extreme weather events, both in terms of frequency and intensity. It will be a vicious and painful cycle of destruction, suffering, and poverty. 

The impacts are going to be far worse for the estimated one billion people who are thought to live under insecure tenure arrangements around the world. This number, based on a nationally representative survey of adults in 140 countries by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Global Land Alliance (GLA), represents nearly 1 in 5 adults in these nations. 

The struggle to mitigate and adapt to climate change is closely linked with ownership of key resources like land and we must ensure that efforts to rein in weather extremes do not further disenfranchise the landless or exacerbate their tenure insecurity.  

We are already seeing evidence of how climate change is manifesting in countries both rich and poor. 

Ferocious wildfires in eastern Canada caused terrible air pollution and turned skies orange in parts of the United States, with dystopian images of New York filling our screens. Europe, after experiencing its hottest summer and second warmest year on record in 2022, is bracing for another year of wild weather.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is struggling to recover from last year’s unprecedented floods that affected more than half of the cropland in one of its most productive regions and the Horn of Africa is still suffering from the most severe drought in recent history. 


Why we must include land rights in climate discussions

Land rights are at the heart of community resilience and reconstruction. If we want our communities to be able to withstand the ever-increasing risk of climate impacts, it is crucial that we include land rights, particularly of the rural poor, in climate discussions and negotiations. 

Humanitarian agencies, development professionals, and academics involved in disaster management and mitigation have known this for decades: They told a 2006 survey conducted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development that “land ownership was a very important element in the resilience of communities to natural disasters” and gave it an average score of 4.5 on a scale of importance from 1 to 5. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body tasked with assessing the science related to climate change, agreed with this assessment, saying in their 2019 report Climate Change and Land, that “land tenure is a key dimension in any discussion of land-climate interactions.”  

The IPCC report was nearly four years ago. In the meantime, millions of people have been displaced by disasters and forced to migrate because their lands have become unproductive or too dangerous to live on. Many more will lose their lands, homes and livelihoods unless we come up with practical and proactive strategies on disaster preparedness, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and new legal frameworks that take into account their rights and access to land. 

In the lead up to COP28, the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR), the Asian NGO Coalition (ANGOC), the Association for Land Reform and Rural Development (ALRD) and the Land Portal Foundation will be spearheading a social media and information campaign on this issue, using hashtags #IfOnlyTheEarthCouldSpeak #landmatters #land4climate #COP28. You can also follow us on Twitter. 

We aim to amplify the voices of marginalised communities like Kavita’s to humanise the issue and ensure that the climate policy discourse will not neglect the crucial role land rights play in building climate resilience of one of the most vulnerable populations - the rural poor.  


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