Tag Archives: state land

Draft Land Rights Policy Statement by the Land Commission of Liberia

by Caleb Stevens

Caleb Stevens is a John Snow Institute Liberia Fellow who works with the Republic of Liberia Land Commission

The Liberian Land Commission has just released a draft Land Rights Policy Statement for public consumption. It is the first such policy in Liberia’s history and creates four fundamental land tenure categories: Government Land, Public Land, Customary Land, and Private Land. In addition, it provides for Protected Areas across these categories to be conserved and managed for the benefit of all Liberians. The Policy also touches on issues of land management, use, and administration, with more detail to follow in separate Land Administration and Land Management Policies.

The document is still in draft form as consultations are getting underway, but you may access the Policy by clicking on this link (pdf).

Comments or questions are welcome; please submit them via email to landcommissionpolicy@gmail.com.

FAO global guidelines on tenure of land, forests and fisheries adopted

by Rhodri C. Williams

I’m not sure who comes out looking worse on this one, BBC or me. On BBC’s ledger sheet, I was intrigued to see a headline to the effect that the “UN adopts historic ‘land grab’ guidelines” – and even more intrigued to click on it and find no links, nor the barest reference to the sponsoring UN agency, the name of the guidelines or any other clear hints as to how I might set about reverse engineering my way to the actual text the article was about.

Lets stop for a second and consider what this says about how the UN is perceived. Would the BBC note the passage of an important policy in the US without once naming the responsible government ministry, the actual name of the policy or the URL where you could find the text? It must be distressing for UN employees to find their sprawling, diverse, and often bitterly divided institution still so easily written off as a monolith.

For my own part, I eventually managed to use the one direct quote in the BBC piece to find my way to a much more journalistically impressive effort by the Miami Herald. Which helped me to the realization that I had lost track of the process of adoption of the FAO’s new ‘Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security’, despite having blogged on them only a month ago.

In my own defense, I had reasonable grounds for confusion. Most of the buzz generated by the guidelines so far seems to come from their association with addressing the current phenomenon of large scale investments in land (more colloquially referred to as large scale land-grabbing). For instance, the BBC describes them flat out as “guidelines for rich countries buying land in developing nations”.

However, the FAO itself announces the guidelines in a much more nuanced manner that conforms to my own earlier understanding: although much of the “public debate has focused on the so-called ‘land-grabbing’ phenomenon,” this is only “one of the issues that are dealt with in these guidelines.” The press release notes that the new text “address a wide range of other issues” as well, many of them far more “entrenched” than land-grabbing.

In fact, the current guidelines appear to focus on the ‘supply side’ – what states experiencing outside investment can do to mitigate the conditions that leave their own populations exposed to its worst effects. Recommended measures such as recognition of customary rights, dispute resolution measures and managing urbanization are clearly directed toward the local authorities, and meant to confront destructive state practices such as the ongoing tendency to exploit post-colonial legacies in the form of ‘state land‘.

Meanwhile, behind all the noise (land grabbing sells, it seems), the FAO affirms that the separate and parallel process of developing guidelines for the ‘demand-side’ actors actually doing the investing in land remains on course:

For its part, the [FAO Committee on World Food Security] will next take a focused look at the issue of responsible agricultural investments in general. The body is currently planning a yearlong consultative process, to start in October, that could culminate in set of recommended principles for responsible investment in agriculture later in 2013.

In implementing the new guidelines, the FAO is banking on buy-in achieved in what was, by all accounts, an exemplary consultative process. It has also planned to engage in technical assistance and develop a series of technical handbooks designed to help countries adapt the guidelines to their local contexts. So more information – presumably along with a dose of confusion – to come.

The Economist on land and natural resources in Southeast Asia

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Economist has run a number of interesting pieces on housing, land and property (HLP) issues as well as natural resource disputes, in southeast Asia (readers be warned: the paywall arrangement now allows non-subscribers to view five articles for free every week, but I think the below pick just squeak in).

Beginning with Burma/Myanmar, a pair of articles from last week’s issue highlight the dark economic underbelly of the country’s current political reform process. A comment on the standoff over the opposition’s refusal to swear an oath to “safeguard” the current, military junta-installed constitution notes the risk that the political debate about the constitution may be a sideshow. Given that the reforms made so far have been enough to ease economic sanctions on Burma, and that the generals that have symbolically conceded political power continue to retain their economic interests, the Economist concludes that “all the boasts of political reform look less like a blueprint for democracy, and more like the generals’ pension plan.”

These concerns serve to reinforce earlier inferences (discussed here and here in TN) that a wave of dubious privatization that preceded the current round of political liberalization may have been intended to allow the military leaders of the country to cash in on their land and natural resource grabs. The extent of this rapaciousness is documented in a separate Economist article, which describes how the nearly feudal style of military occupation of the rebellious ethnic states in Myanmar has opened the door to both wholesale natural resource theft and drug trafficking:

On the back of its formal military role, the army has also built up a suffocating economic grip on the region. Across Myanmar, the national army has for years pursued a policy of “living off the land”. Battalions are obliged to become their own farmers and businessmen in order to feed themselves and pay their wages.

In my earlier comments on Burma (linked above), I raised the risk that liberalization could follow the same path as in Cambodia, where a neo-patrimonial regime has dangled the barest of fig leaves over its essentially predatory governance mode. The continuity of this tradition has been confirmed in this week’s Economist, which reports on the apparent killing by the Cambodian military of Chhut Vuthy, an activist against illegal logging who founded the Natural Resources Protection Group.

Remaining with Cambodia, it seems that what one does within one’s own borders is one thing, but that cross-border rapaciousness will not be tolerated. The Economist also reports this week that Cambodia has led fierce protests against a unilateral decision by Laos (cheered on by Thai construction interests) to begin construction of a massive dam on the Mekong River, despite a recommendation by a regional commission that further study on the downstream effects be undertaken.

Finally, HLP rights expert Daniel Fitzpatrick is quoted in an interesting report on East Timor. There, it seems the post-independence government succeeded to the ‘state land’ previously taken from smallholders by successive Portuguese and Indonesian occupiers, and is now facing a familiar dilemma. On one hand, justice requires some form of recognition of the claims of those previously dispossessed in the countryside. On the other hand, the lure of badly needed revenues from international concessions beckons.

Online books on land law in Africa

Just a brief announcement regarding a pair of very interesting online books from last year that are available for free download from the website of the Pretoria University Law Press. Both are edited by Robert Home and address the theme of African Land Law.

The first is a series of case-studies. While most take up development themes, the first two, by Patrick McAuslan and Geoffrey Payne, focus on post-conflict issues. In the case of McAuslan in particular, the analysis appears to further unpack development-based critiques of the Pinheiro Principles of the sort initially raised by the Overseas Development Institute.

The second book features a series of essays, including a discussion of the influence of Islamic Land Law in Africa by Siraj Sait, and several pieces on the trend toward recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights, in contradiction to the post-colonial impulse to treat untitled land as the property of the state.

The need to move from recognition of such rights to implementation was recently highlighted by a report on Kenya by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Africa. According to reports earlier this month by the Nation and the Star, the report highlights not only Kenya’s failure to implement the findings of the African Commission of Human and People’s Rights in the Endorois case, but also ongoing land depredations that continue to threaten other minority groups in Kenya (as reported on earlier in TN here).

Investment-related conflict in South Sudan: contested rights and the power of information

by David Deng

David Deng is Research Director for the South Sudan Law Society. These observations were originally presented at “Turning Point: What future for people and resources? A panel on the trends shaping rural lands and lives” on February 1, 2012 at The Royal Society of London.

Introduction

The new report by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) paints a vivid picture of a world in flux and the various struggles that are emerging over wealth, power, and natural resources. I’d like to pick up on a couple of these themes and flesh them out a bit with examples from South Sudan, where I’ve worked for the past few years on several projects relating to land rights. Most recently, my work has touched on the surge in land-based investment after the 2005 peace agreement, which brought to an end the 22-year civil war between north and south in Sudan.

Investment and conflict

The first issue that I’d like to touch on is the complex relationship between investment and conflict in resource-rich states. I think it is fairly clear to us all that poorly planned investments can contribute to conflict, particularly in fragile, post-conflict states; but what is perhaps a little less obvious is how conflict can actually serve to attract certain types of investment.

Let me explain. Struggles over land and natural resources were among the root causes of the civil war in South Sudan. Foreign investments during this period often contributed to the violence. Oil companies colluded with the government in Khartoum to forcibly displace local populations from oil producing areas, in order to make the land available for oil exploration. Armed groups in South Sudan used local monopolies of violence to control cross-border trade in precious woods.

And in the Nuba Mountains along the border between north and south, where today, we hear reports of mass killings and hundreds of thousands of people at risk of conflict induced-famine, the government expropriated community lands and gave them to foreign and domestic elites in order to establish large-scale mechanized farms. The disregard that Khartoum showed for their community lands caused many Nuba to join the liberation movement in the south. What followed was a long and costly civil war that eventually resulted in the secession of South Sudan.

But with its newfound independence, South Sudan finds itself in a harsh new world. It has a population of only 8 or 9 million, spread across a land area more than twice the size of the UK, considerable supplies of oil and minerals, fertile land and water; all this makes South Sudan an attractive prize in a resource-strapped world.

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New report on the ‘global land grab’ – and guest-posting by David Deng

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a post late last month, I delved into the problem of ‘public/state land’ and the opportunity that this overwhelmingly post-colonial tenure form presents for state predation in a context of spiraling commodity prices. In taking on such a broad and complicated topic, I am afraid I may have oversimplified things. Toward the end of the piece, I noted Shaun Williams’ suggestion (in an earlier TN post) that focusing on effective management of urban public land was likely to be both more feasible and more rewarding than dealing with customary tenure issues for low capacity governments interested in reforming their land systems. Shaun’s insight on the relative tractability of public land issues was reinforced by Erica Harper’s previous description of the difficulties inherent in implementing – or even generalizing about – reform of customary law systems.

All that said, having pushed the ‘publish’ button, I reflected on the fact that this dichotomy between state and customary tenure regimes might be a bit too pat, at least as a global generalization. After all, Shaun’s comments were focused on urban land and the particular context of the Solomon Islands. Was it not actually the case that in rural contexts, in particular, the problem was precisely that the two categories overlapped, with both the state and customary communities essentially ignoring each other’s mutually exclusive claims to the same land until they came into direct conflict? By and large, this seems to be the issue, with the maintenance of public land regimes allowing inchoate colonial era mass-expropriations to be projected into the twenty-first century with a veneer of legality.

This sense of things got a significant boost with the launch last week of a new report – Turning Point: What future for forest peoples and resources in the emerging world order? – by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). As indicated in the launch webpage, RRI has traditionally been concerned primarily with forest tenure. However, this report, as well as an accompanying set of issue briefs by Liz Alden Wily, reflect the fact that forest land now faces many of the same pressures as other rural land, and that the tenure rights of forest dwellers are no more secure than those of smallholders anywhere. The basic issues at stake are set out starkly in the RRI’s press release on the report:

In presenting the results of an analysis of tenure rights in 35 African countries, by international land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily, [RRI Global Programs Head Jeffrey] Hatcher noted that despite the clear potential for bloodshed, “local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa.” Alden Wily’s review found that the majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land, including forests, rangelands or marshlands, are claimed by states, but held in common by communities, affecting “a minimum” of 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa. “Every corner of every state has a customary owner,” Alden Wily concluded.

The launch of the RRI report was accompanied by a panel discussion describing the effect of large-scale land investments and concessions in a number of settings. One of these was South Sudan, and it is a pleasure to announce that the corresponding observations, by David Deng, will be reproduced in the form of a guest posting on TN tomorrow.

Those familiar with the increasingly urgent debates surrounding the ‘global land rush’ will be aware that Mr. Deng authored a report published last March by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) indicating that as much as nine percent of South Sudan’s territory – an area larger than Rwanda – may have been ‘spoken for’ before the country came into formal existence. Mr. Deng was also one of the contributors to a massive study on transnational land deals and human rights undertaken by the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) in support of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. He is now Research Director for the South Sudan Law Society. 

Someday, none of this will be yours: the predatory state eyes ‘public’ land

by Rhodri C. Williams

In trying to keep track of even a fraction of the local and regional flare-ups over land rights these days, I keep thinking back to times when I was working in Bosnia and a  particularly infected property dispute would come up in the course of the restitution process. My colleague Charles P (one of the unsung geniuses behind the famous ‘PLIP‘) would shake his head wearily and mutter the climactic phrases of a classic quote from Gone with the Wind:

Why, land is the only thing in the world worth working for. Worth fighting for, worth dying for. Because it’s the only thing that lasts.

It has long been understood that land is fundamental to the material needs and identity of just about anyone not yet caught up in the great wave of urbanization that characterizes our time (as well as many of those who have). The Endorois decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights also represents the latest in a long line of affirmations that recognition of the rights of those with longstanding claims to land through use and attribution is a precondition for them to participate in the life of the state on equitable terms.

It has also long been axiomatic that states retain the final word on land use, and that even where formal nationalization never took place, post-colonial states often inherited – and maintained – laws that held all land not formally owned in a state of inchoate expropriation. Shaun Williams writes on the ongoing challenges presented by ‘state land’ administration in post-colonial urban settings in a recent TN guest-posting, while Liz Alden Wily describes the rural consequences of the ‘public land’ problem in a pithy contribution to ODI’s 2009 research on land and conflict issues.

After the Cold War, the notion that individual and community rights to land might come to be seen as on a par with the state claims to eminent domain were buoyed on the rising tides of human rights and human security. Even if few dared to go as far as to posit a general right to land, there was a sense that policy was pointing in a protective direction. The rise of the post-conflict restitution discourse as symbolized by the Pinheiro Principles has been one example. Another has been the tendency for development standards and instruments to give property rights greater prominence. For instance, The Atlantic recently inferred a paradigm shift in international views on property rights from the post-Cold War proliferation of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) incorporating protections of private property rights:

While the specifics often differ, many BIT provisions protecting foreign investments have become near universal. Both the Turkey-Turkmenistan and U.S.-El Salvador agreements protect foreign investments from direct or indirect expropriation, nationalization, or similar measures “except for a public purpose, in a non-discriminatory manner, upon payment of prompt, adequate and effective compensation, and in accordance with due process of law.” Some countries’ more recent BITs also contain provisions designed to protect environment, labor, public health, and other public policy concerns in addition to the property rights of foreign investors.

However, the Atlantic’s declaration of a post-Cold War “worldwide revolution in how we think about international law and private property” seems premature, precisely because the line between “private” and “public” property remains so heavily contested. Meanwhile, a host of new factors have pushed many states from simply maintaining the status quo (e.g. allowing their populations to continue using ‘state land’ largely unmolested but without the prospect of genuine tenure security) to active predation. The combination of a general economic downturn, rising food and commodity prices, and new forms of state-backed investment have led many states to put their hand in the cookie jar, allocating nationalized and public land to domestic and international investors at a handsome (and typically highly untransparent) profit.

However, the basic dependence and attachment of families and communities to land they consider their own remains, leading to what must be an unprecedented proliferation of sharp and often violent confrontations between states (particularly less representative ones where governments may stand for ethnic or economic elites) and their own citizens over territory. The problem is not limited to states that have nationalized their land or ‘inherited’ public land from prior colonial regimes. However, it seems particularly acute in such settings precisely because the ordinary devices for protecting property from state intrusion assume the prior grant or recognition of rights in such property. Where such rights were ostensibly extinguished by nationalizations or colonial declarations of public land, legality is shifted to the side of the state and communities with every possible equitable right to their land are implausibly – but legally – reframed as squatters.

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