Imagine you are a farmer. You have a small plot where you grow vegetables to feed your family, and another where you and your community grow corn. In winter or lean times, you can go into the forest that’s next to your land to gather firewood or hunt for some wild food. You don’t have piece of paper stating any of this; all you know is that your mother or father worked this soil, their mother and father before them, and so on.
Let’s say you want to invest in some chickens and goats, so you go to the local bank and request a small loan to do so. When they ask for collateral however, you can’t offer them your land claim, and are left in the dust. Let’s say the government has classified the land your community uses for grazing as “vacant”, and leases it to a company as part of a big land deal. Without recognition of communal land, you have no recourse or pathway to compensation for the loss of land. Maybe if you don’t feel complete ownership over the soil you till, you pass on the opportunity to invest in planting trees that may not bear fruit for five years, and stick with the low risk low reward status quo. If you are a female farmer, you may not have inheritance rights if your husband or father passes away.
Though this is a very simplified scenario, it is what millions of smallholders face every day, and why this week in Dakar, Senegal, government ministers and civil society from across the African continent will gather for the Global Land Forum. May 12th is Africa Day, an occasion to celebrate and showcase responsible land governance practices on the continent. Why is land, particularly tenure and titling, such an important issue in Africa? Because for a farmer or pastoralist, land is their livelihood; land is where they sow their seeds, land is where they graze their flock, and land is what keeps them out of extreme poverty.
Smallholder farmers produce around 80 percent of the food supply in sub-Saharan Africa, but often they do so with a highly tenuous legal hold over the main resource that supports them and their communities; the ground beneath their feet. And increasingly, pressure from the search for arable land not already being farmed (of which Africa has around 50%) has put farmers and communities at increasing risk of losing their land and livelihood due to weak recognition of land rights.
Thankfully, the proposed Sustainable Development Goals do have targets that address issues of land tenure under Goal 1 (End poverty), Goal 2 (End hunger) and Goal 5 (Gender equality). However, as Oxfam has already pointed out, the proof will be in the pudding, or in this case, the indicators used to measure how “equal access and control” of land is measured. Those discussions will be taking place over the next year, to be decided by national statistical offices.
In the meantime, we have a whole host of regional and international standards to point to as benchmarks to hold governments to account as they make these important decisions in 2015. The Land Policy Initiative in Africa, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests, the resolution on Women’s Rights to Land and Productive Resources, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples all exist to uphold the land rights of those who don’t have a voice.
Here in the U.S., we have the opportunity to support legislation introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate. The bipartisan Global Food Security Act of 2015 is a step towards ensuring that U.S. agricultural development and food security programs move smallholders closer to secure land rights and explicitly support food security, resilience and nutrition.