Land laws mean nothing unless communities can prove their ownership, researchers said Thursday, calling for better tools to map the land and stave off conflict over property.
From South Africa to the Amazon rainforest, battles over land and who owns it are unleashing unprecedented conflict and labyrinthine legal cases as governments and companies seek to exploit ever more of the world’s natural resources, from trees to minerals to rubber.
With an estimated 70 percent of the world unmapped, more than 5 billion people lack proof of ownership, according to the Lima-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy.
Laws no safeguard
Speaking at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual two-day Trust Conference, which focuses on a host of human rights issues, experts said the existence of laws in itself was no safeguard against abuse.
South Africa enshrines security of tenure in its constitution but the government rides roughshod over locals by promoting controversial mining deals, said Aninka Claassens, director of the University of Cape Town’s Land and Accountability Research Center.
More than two decades after the end of apartheid, whites still own most of the land in resource-rich South Africa and ownership remains a highly emotive subject ahead of next year’s national election.
“Our constitution means nothing unless people affected can prove their land rights, that’s why recorded rights are so important,” she said. “Mining is destroying livelihoods and land.”
Who owns what, where
Mapping property rights is crucial to understand “who owns what, where and how,” said Anne Girardin, land surveyor at the Cadasta Foundation, which develops digital tools to document and analyze land and resource rights information.
“That allows you to monitor changes in land resources, but also to better protect them,” she added.
More than 200 activists protecting their land and environment were killed in 2017, according to a survey of 22 countries by Global Witness, marking the deadliest year since the human rights group began collecting data.
Better and more coordinated information is needed to ward off more deadly conflicts, the experts said, citing satellite images and smartphones as tools that could document land.
Technology is plentiful but resources are scattered, Girardin said.
“It would take all the land surveyors we have 200-300 years to map the world’s undocumented land, so we need to be more pragmatic and work together,” she said.
Communities document land
Rampant deforestation means communities should rush to document their own land rather than wait for governments to act, said Nonette Royo, executive director of the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, which helps indigenous people.
“In the world, forest area the size of Belgium disappears every year,” she said.
For Claassens, land rights should be mapped and recorded in accordance with who uses land as well as who actually owns it.
“Who uses the land? Most often, it’s women,” she said, adding that women were often excluded from property records.
Women are key in the fight for land rights from Brazil to Cambodia, often deployed at the frontline to ward off development and protect family plots, fields and villages.