Report on the ‘Conservation and Land Grabbing’ Symposium

02 July 2013 | Article

In recent years, the pace of global land acquisition has dramatically increased due to changes in commodity markets, agricultural investment strategies, land prices, and a range of other policy and market forces. This surge in land acquisition is widespread, but particularly pronounced in a) countries with relatively weak governance and protection of customary land rights; b) in the global ‘commons’ i.e. lands which are customarily used collectively at the local scale, including forests, rangelands, and wetlands. 

These landscapes support the livelihoods of up to two billion people around the world, most of whom are among the rural poor. These lands are also central to global conservation objectives, housing a large proportion of the world’s biodiversity. The current global land rush therefore presents a threat not just to local livelihoods and human rights, as has been the primary focus thus far within the public debates around land transfers, but also to conservation objectives.  It is the fact that so much of the current land rush is concentrated in areas with weak governance, where local communities’ tenure is not recognized or claims are contested, and where current market dynamics lead to a veritable scramble for claims and control over lands, that generates the present focus on ‘land grabbing’.

The relationship between ‘land grabbing’ and conservation is a multi-faceted and evolving one, which merits further exploration. On the one hand, green markets or conservation targets may be a driver of land acquisitions that displace local communities and infringe on their resource access and use rights.  At the same time, though, the growing pace of land acquisition for commercial agriculture and other activities can dramatically transform ecosystems and native biodiversity, in ways that undermine both local livelihoods and conservation objectives. Consequently, many conservation efforts around the world, from indigenous lands in Latin America, to pastoralist rangelands in East Africa, to indigenous communities in Australia and Canada, are working to secure local land tenure as a foundation for sustainable use of natural resources.

In light of these trends and challenges, the International Institute for Environment and Development, through its Poverty and Conservation Learning Group, in collaboration with the International Land Coalition, Zoological Society of London and Maliasili Initiatives, convened a symposium at the London Zoo on March 26th and 27th to explore the multi-faceted interactions between conservation efforts, land acquisition, and community land rights, and to examine opportunities for greater convergence and synergy between these different movements and interests.

The overall objectives of the symposium were to:

  1. Examine the varied interactions between conservation and land rights/’land grabbing’ in a variety of global contexts; and
  2. Encourage more strategic engagement by the conservation movement in land rights and tenure concerns, highlighting different models that can be used to secure or strengthen local land rights, and the potential role of conservation in combating ‘land grabbing’ thus benefitting both conservation and development.

The symposium brought together about 80 people from different parts of the world including experts on land tenure, rural development, legal empowerment, as well as representatives of a range of conservation organizations and networks. Through discussions over two days involving a wide range of presentations and case studies from different parts of the world, the symposium highlighted a number of potential opportunities for conservation efforts to address land rights more directly, with the following examples and possibilities identified:

  • The Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group (ABCG) is an informal partnership of 6 international NGOs working in biodiversity conservation across Africa. The network promotes dialogue and exchange between member institutions. 8 “work streams” are being explored at the moment, of which two are of direct relevance to the issue of land rights, namely: governance & land tenure, and large-scale land acquisitions.
  • Commodity and private sector round tables and safeguard mechanisms are of growing importance for land-based agricultural investments, including forestry and palm oil. Opportunities exist for promoting local level land rights in ways that advance conservation objectives as well.
  • International finance safeguard mechanisms are attracting growing attention, particularly on issues related to REDD+, forest trade and law enforcement. Furthermore, REDD+ is increasingly making the link between reducing deforestation and securing land and natural resource tenure at state, provincial and national levels. To date, however, conservation organisations have had relatively limited involvement in this debate, and primarily from the perspective of environmental safeguards.
  • The Voluntary Guidelines (VGs) on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, developed by FAO provide opportunities for in-country players to begin to lobby national governments for strengthening of land rights, as well as promoting greater transparency and disclosure with regard to large scale land deals.  While they are non-binding in nature, they have been developed through widespread consultation and review by both state, and non-state actors alike. The involvement of conservation organisations to date, however, has been very limited.
  • One perceived barrier to the promotion of land rights by conservation organisations is the complexity and multi-dimensionality of questions relating to land in many country contexts. Land conflicts are often deeply rooted in governance failures – an area that is both unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for many conservation organisations.  Furthermore, ‘land grabbing’ is essentially about rights  - the core business of many development organisations but traditionally of less concern for conservation organisations. Few conservation organisations have the capacity to undertake this kind of work alone and will need to enter into new partnerships with human rights based NGOs. ‘Land grabbing’ and land rights could potentially be a key issue that encourages better and stronger collaboration between environment and development organisations.