The Third Generation Project

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How Governments Are Taking Away the Right to Land

Later this month, the United Nations will host the 17th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a body established in July 2000 to focus on concerns such as development, the environment, health and human rights. Over 1000 representatives of Indigenous peoples organisations, UN member states and UN agencies will gather for a series of meetings and round tables that together will prioritise this year’s theme: Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources.

"The theft of land from its original inhabitants lies at the heart of historic and continued colonialism."

The session couldn’t be more timely. Perhaps more than ever before, the right to land has become a human rights issue – one that is only exacerbated by the ever more evident impact of climate change. As food security becomes more tenuous, the pressure on Indigenous lands, and the desire to take those lands, has never been greater. Yet for the majority of Indigenous communities their position is a tenuous one. Legal systems often do not recognise customary rights, which results in governments stepping in to take lands either for their own use or, more likely, to give land to others in the name of increased foreign investment and improved development prospects.

"The reality is that much of this land is not actually under-utilised, but is instead used by pastoralists and forest peoples, whose customary rights to the land are being consistently violated."

“Land grabbing” is not new. The theft of land from its original inhabitants lies at the heart of historic and continued colonialism. Since 2008, widespread concerns about the possibility of a global food crisis—spurned by climate change—have led to an increased demand for agricultural land. This demand has also increased the global practice of land grabbing; governments across the globe have leased millions of hectares of land to agricultural investors, both foreign and domestic.

The defense is that investment like this is important for guaranteeing food security, an important part of development strategy. Such rhetoric allows governments to take any lands categorised as ‘under-utilised’ for what they call ‘productive use.’ In other words, within this legal framework, the government can label any lands it wants as ‘under-utilised’ and legally, in a very technical sense, seize whatever lands they please.

The reality is that much of this land is not actually under-utilised, but is instead used by pastoralists and forest peoples, whose customary rights to the land are being consistently violated. The way in which the land is used under these new leasing arrangements does little for food security anyway given that there is little food produced. Instead land is chiefly used for an array of non-food products, like flowers, or for growing food products destined for the export market.

"...changes in land use from forestry to agriculture to settlement and commercial use leave all of us vulnerable..."

In response, Indigenous peoples are fighting back: by mounting legal challenges; by staying on their lands despite attempts to remove them; and by joining with other communities facing similar threats – an encouraging trend to which we hope this year’s Permanent Forum will draw attention.

That attempts to resist land encroachment are successful is important not only for the Indigenous communities involved, but for all of us. Land rights are a crucial element in dealing with climate change, and changes in land use from forestry to agriculture to settlement and commercial use leave all of us vulnerable, including communities here in Scotland, which have long histories of land grabbing and forced migration.

The historic events of the Highland Clearances were themselves a story of marginalised communities losing the rights to their lands when land went into private ownership and remained there. This is something that still resonates today in the population patterns and land use of remote communities.

As a result, Scotland has long been seen as one of the most inequitable countries in Europe in terms of land ownership. Recent changes in the law have, however, placed more power into the hands of communities, with the result that patterns in land ownership are beginning to change.

Still, communities in Scotland identify with the Global Call to Action 2020, a campaign that seeks to double the global area of land legally recognised as owned or controlled by Indigenous peoples and communities. This campaign is something too that the Third Generation Project stands behind. Land rights are a key area of concern for us. Land rights are human rights, and land rights are critical in the ongoing battle to bring about environmental change and social equity.

Ali Watson