Tenure rights to ‘commons’ — communally shared lands, forests and water — are increasingly contested due to a rising demand for natural resources from growing populations and ineffective governance. Last week, African countries invited researchers and civil-society representatives to take joint steps towards the adaption to resource scarcity and the prevention of land-related conflict. The African Land Policy Initiative hosted its first Africa Land Conference at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 11 to 14 November 2014. In a plenary session for policy-makers, Bernadata Mushashu, a member of the Pan-African Parliament, emphasized the need for joint action: “Land is the most valuable thing that our people have. We need to work collaboratively.” She urged scientists to actively communicate their knowledge: “Please translate research papers and simplify them.”

africa land conference rollupProtection of cultural and economic values needs to enter the political agenda

Particularly in countries which do not have a national land ownership registry, the demarcation and registration of community rights to land can be a tremendous boost to securing access to food and the sustainable management of resources. IASS Secretary-General Alexander Müller spearheaded the negotiations on the responsible governance of tenure during his tenure at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). At a side event hosted by the IASS, Müller advocated policy-makers to pay particular attention to tenurial issues of commons: “The cultural and social potential as well as their economic value must not be underestimated.” The efforts of the African Land Policy Initiative to develop a regional strategy to deal with large-scale international investments in food, minerals and biomass are timely Responsible governance must insure that investments provide for the livelihood security of local populations. . This is especially true of regions where 70 per cent of the extreme poor live in rural areas, typically favored by foreign investors.

The need to secure tenure rights to commons was the tenor of the participants of the IASS side event, comprised of policy-makers, internationally recognized experts, and civil society organizations working on land tenure and collective rights. Andrew Hilton of the FAO referred to the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT) and the Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa (F&G). He argued that both documents acknowledge the legitimacy of tenure rights, including those to commons, and “once you recognize legitimate tenure rights, then there is the implicit duty to protect and safeguard these rights.”

Strategies to support and protect collective tenure

In conjunction with the Africa Land Conference, the IASS Global Soil Forum also organized a two day-workshop on strategies for securing collectively-owned and managed natural resources, i.e. land, fisheries and forests. Participants from thirteen African countries, Europe, and the USA participated took part in this regional consultation., The absence of national land registers leads to the infringement of use rights in all African countries who participated in the workshop. According to Fernando Songane from the NGO Centro Terra Viva in Mozambique “the government did a good job in designing a land law with the participation of civil society. But now the commons need active support if we do not want to lose our natural resources to international investors.”

Working Group at IASS Session

Working Group at IASS Session

During the workshop, the participants identified the need to map and register the boundaries of local communities at the national level. The decentralization of governments was recommended in order to recognize communities as legal entities and collective owners of territories. This process has already taken place for example in Tanzania. Shadrack Omondi from the Kenyan based Resource Conflict Institute (RECONCILE) argued that local complexities can be understood through this type of process. Despite lagging implementation, the law making process in Kenya was considered to be a good practice by the participants. Among other things, the land law allows for the election of local land committees, which are recognized as state authorities at the local level. Within this framework, communities are free to retain their customary rules as long as elections are free and based on equal participation, and the committee regularly provides updates on land use planning to the national authorities.

The regional consultation workshop aimed to gather input for the Technical Guide on Tenure Rights Related to the Commons, currently drafted by the IASS. The purpose of this FAO commissioned guide is to support the uptake of the VGGT at the national level.