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Want to Fight Climate Change? Give Communities the Rights to Their Land!

Recently, The Guardian published a poll of the world's top climate scientists who alarmingly said they expect global warming to blast past the 1.5°C target resulting in ever more severe climate effects.  That, one would imagine, should focus governments’ minds to take actions to mitigate global warming and create a more resilient response, but could also result in an attitude of hopelessness. 

We need to reframe the problem.  Every fraction of a degree matters. To make these incremental improvements, one sector is often overlooked. This is where land rights and tenure enter the climate change mitigation framework.

What is the connection between climate change and land rights? 

Climate change is and will continue to impact land rights, intertwining environmental and social aspects. The effects of climate change lead to shifts in land use patterns, increased land scarcity, and unpredictability in rainfall, affecting communities' access to and use of land. Climate-related disasters can exacerbate these issues, potentially leading to land grabbing and undermining land rights. Failure to secure land rights leads to land loss, migration and displacement, a major cause of unrest and violence. Climate change only exacerbates the impacts.

Securing land rights empowers communities and is crucial in climate action. Strengthening communal and collective land tenure rights can slow climate change by encouraging sustainable land management practices and promoting social inclusion in climate financing projects. Fundamentally, climate change impacts land rights by altering land use dynamics, increasing competition for land, and challenging existing governance systems. Recognizing and securing land rights are essential in addressing the complex interplay between climate change and land tenure, ensuring sustainable development and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.

For example, land rights issues related to climate change include heightened vulnerability of communities to the impacts of global warming by reducing their resilience to recovery from loss and damage. Securing land tenure enables these communities to make decisions and investments in their lands, improving resilience and taking actions to mitigate climate change impacts.

Securing land tenure rights often impacts eligibility for government support in cases of loss or damage. At the same time, secure rights also provide access to farmer and irrigation societies, enabling communities to receive climate adaptation and mitigation assistance like crop insurance and drought relief.

Land rights policy changes help mitigate climate change and its impact.  For example, implementing statutory laws that protect and recognize community land rights, and simplifying and establishing accessible procedures for communities to register and document their land rights, improves land tenure security, promoting sustainable land use practices. These same land rights policies, with proper oversight, can require companies to obtain the informed consent of land rights holders, preventing exploitative concessions from being allocated on community lands. Well-intentioned climate change mitigation efforts such as dam construction, solar farms and even tree planting initiatives require acquisition of vast amounts of land. Without a strong legal tenure foundation, these mitigation efforts may result in displacement without consent.

A key pillar in climate action is the recognition and protection of indigenous land rights. Indigenous communities often play a key role in sustainable forest management and land stewardship, contributing significantly to climate change mitigation efforts.

Threats to indigenous communities from climate change include sea level rise, increased flooding, droughts and desertification, making land unusable or uninhabitable, resulting in displacement from ancestral lands.

Indigenous communities and similar groups with strong cultural and economic ties to specific land areas provide examples of the direct links between land tenure and climate change. Many indigenous groups have sophisticated sustainable land management traditions that mitigate climate change. The legal foundations for indigenous land rights rest on preserving and protecting, through legislation, land and resource rights combined with devolved management authority and mixing traditional practices with economic incentives. Securing land rights for indigenous peoples is critical for enabling communities to adapt to climate impacts, maintain sustainable practices that aid mitigation, and preserve their cultural heritage.

Examples of successful policy and legal changes regarding environmental stewardship by indigenous peoples include studies showing that deforestation rates in the Amazon rain forest are two to three times lower in legally recognized indigenous lands. Similarly, Mexico’s community forest management system has incentivized sustainable practices and now accounts for approximately 4% of its annual carbon capture program.

Recently, Indonesia has enacted legislation that strengthened the land rights of indigenous communities by recognizing their community forests as a distinct land tenure category. The result has been sustainable forest management based on traditional practices preventing deforestation.

Outside of indigenous communities, secure land tenure and property rights also positively impact climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in several ways.

Studies by the World Bank, FAO and other international agencies have shown that through secure tenure, farmers and other land users have greater incentives to invest in sustainable long-term land management practices, improving resilience and reducing emissions from unsustainable practices. Farmers are more likely to plant trees for productive purposes like timber, fruit or fodder, sequestering carbon and secure tenure allows farmers to access credit, extension services and make long-term investments in climate-resilient agricultural inputs and practices.

In urban and peri-urban areas, secure tenure allows for better planning and development, particularly when combined with Nature-based Solutions.

Securing land tenure is linked closely with climate change mitigation efforts. It guides development, land use planning and improves community involvement in decision-making processes that impact climate change mitigation efforts. 

It is one tool in the box when we understand that every fraction of a degree counts.

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