Tenure reform: Lessons from the Global South

A Q&A with researcher Anne Larson on the changing conditions of rights and resources in discussion at the World Bank Land and Poverty Conference
Reforms around the world are putting resource rights in the hands of communities and local governments. CIFOR Photo

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Over the past two decades, a global trend has seen increasing recognition of the rights of communities and local governments to manage their own resources, particularly in developing countries. An ongoing study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has followed this process across Asia, Africa and Latin America, finding key lessons for successful tenure reform.

The latest findings and their implications will be discussed this week at a South-South Policy Dialogue held on the sidelines of the World Bank Land and Poverty Conference in Washington, DC. Ahead of the event, Forests News sat down with Anne Larson, a Principal Scientist at CIFOR and team leader of the Global Comparative Study on Forest Tenure Reform, to hear her thoughts.

Can you tell us more about the upcoming South-South Exchange?

We’ve done a couple of these exchanges in the past. This time we have government representatives coming from six countries where we conduct our research – from Indonesia, Nepal, Uganda, Kenya, Colombia and Peru. The idea is, on the first day, that we will be able to meet each other in person and discuss expectations for the week. And at the end of the week, we’ll be able to have a discussion about what was learned, what’s new, what’s changed. We will have time to address questions, doubts, ideas, together with a few key resource people who work on this topic.

During the week, the invited officials will be able to attend presentations and will also present their own country experiences on the implementation of tenure reforms during our Policy Roundtable on Tenure Reform Implementation. Our research team is also presenting papers on several panels, based on the field research findings. And on the last day, we are giving a Master Class on Reform Implementation and Tenure Security.

The advantage of doing this in parallel with the World Bank conference is that it allows us to draw on the resources of the many people who will attend, from all over the world. The week is a huge learning opportunity, but it also gives us the opportunity to discuss as a group, highlight our research and raise questions with practitioners.

What do you hope to achieve from the event?

So far, engagement with policy makers and practitioners in multi-stakeholder forums and exchanges has shown strong potential for raising awareness of the impacts of, and barriers to, reform implementation across different socio-political and historical settings, as well as the impacts of reform on livelihoods and sustainability. These engagements have been aimed also at encouraging debate and discussion on the types of tenure reforms being implemented, and their effects on tenure security.

To better understand the institutional frameworks for implementation in study countries, we have administered short surveys to the government representatives directly involved. This will be the topic of our roundtable discussion: CIFOR will present some preliminary cross-cutting findings, and government officials from six countries will be able to contribute based on their specific experience with implementation.

Can you give some more background about tenure, and how it relates to rights and resources?

Tenure refers to the content, or substance, of rights and to the security of rights. It refers to rights from different points of view, to overlapping rights and sometimes to conflict. Understanding rights requires an understanding of history and of power relations. In addition, a focus on ‘rights’ alone only tells part of the story: not all rights can be exercised, and not all of those who gain access to resources have rights.

It is not enough just to earn the right to call the land or forest their own, people also need to be able to use it.

Anne Larson, Principal Scientist

Among other things, recognition can be very empowering to the people who have their historic rights recognized, such as indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, this may be short-lived if there is not accompanying support (rather than obstacles) to resource access and management. That is, it is not enough just to earn the right to call the land or forest their own, people also need to be able to use it – in some cases management regulations are very restrictive, and in other cases people need technical support, tools and financing, to be able to make the best use of resources to improve their livelihoods.

What is driving tenure reform across the Global South?

There are a number of factors leading to reform. Some are broader dynamics, like the end of authoritarian regimes and attention to decentralized governance more broadly, others are country-specific. A study of the history of reforms in Peru, for example, found that changes in favor of indigenous land rights have often occurred in response to moments of crisis. In Indonesia and Peru, the state as a whole has supported community rights when it was ideologically disposed to do so, or when it was strongly encouraged to by social action or political calculation, sometimes in response to conflict. It also appears that donor funding can help the cause of communities.

Does tenure reform lead to more sustainable land management?

Research is mixed and the results depend on many different factors besides just who owns or manages the forest. There is certainly evidence that under the right conditions, forests can be not only well managed for resource sustainability but also provide for local livelihoods and wellbeing when they are in the hands of local people. However, it is also important to note that indigenous people or local communities may have rights, by law, to land and forests that should not necessarily be conditioned on whether they will manage those forests well. Sometimes these are two separate issues.

What are the common challenges to reform?

Challenges range from resistance and opposition to deficits in human, technical and financial resources at all levels, as well as broader governance problems, such as weak rule of law. Reforms require overcoming resistance to indigenous and community rights from multiple arenas, for example: those who believe natural resources should be managed by the state for the greatest public good; development interests that support large-scale private investment and see granting resources to communities as taking them out of production; and conservationists who fear local people will over-exploit resources and prefer models such as ‘parks without people’.

These particular perspectives or worldviews combine with more questionable opposition due to competition for control over resources, and biases such as racism, to stack the deck against rights recognition. Overcoming the obstacles to recognition and respect for legitimate community rights requires coalitions for change and a clear understanding of the roots of opposition.

What lessons can be learned from experience?

There are no ‘magic bullets’ for securing recognition and respect for legitimate tenure rights for local communities. There are, however, many ways to support tenure reforms and their implementation that will increase the likelihood and sustainability of success, and the contributions of tenure security to effective and equitable natural resource governance.

There are no ‘magic bullets’ for securing recognition and respect for legitimate tenure rights for local communities.

Anne Larson, Principal Scientist

We’ve found specific challenges related to community dynamics, for example, to do with gender. Preliminary findings show that women have a very low participation in the drafting of reform processes, while men dominate the formalization or implementation process across the studied countries. In Indonesia, Uganda and Peru, women are less informed about reform implementation and outcomes, this has important implications in terms of the realization of rights.

In general, we have found that having a strong, evidence-based understanding of the existing challenges to recognition of tenure rights is essential for designing strategies to overcome them. This includes the challenge of building coalitions and supporting grassroots organizations and social movements; designing a clear roadmap, with communities, for implementation; supporting the enabling conditions for improvements in livelihoods and effective and sustainable resource management; and monitoring progress to adapt to and confront new challenges.

This research was supported by GEF, FAO, EC and IFAD.
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