The below article was originally published in La República, Lima, March 29, 2017 (in Spanish).

One might think that the spread of capitalist relations would result in most of the land belonging to people with individual property titles. Those people would be able to freely sell, buy, and rent land, making the land market similar to the markets for real estate, cars, or any commercial good.

Is that what we are witnessing? Is this the case in Peru? Let us first consider what has been the global trend, based on a 2015 report from the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), which includes data on 64 countries representing 10.6 million hectares (Mha) of forestland and covering 82 percent of the global land area.1 Of that total, only 1.939 MHa (18 percent) is legally recognized as owned by or designated for local communities and Indigenous Peoples.

The key words here are “legally recognized.” RRI estimates that local communities and Indigenous Peoples own up to 65 percent of the world’s land area. But many governments only legally recognize the rights to a small portion of those lands. This lack of recognition contributes greatly to social conflicts in many countries and leads, for example, to investments being abandoned, environmental degradation, cultural extinction, and climate change. The report presents an indispensable methodological explanation and additional relevant data, from which we draw only a few examples.

Five countries dominate the world’s results: China, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and Mexico. Together, these countries account for 67 percent of the world’s land area officially owned by or designated for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

If we divide these into per capita income groups, we see that there are fewer collective lands in low-income countries (less than US$1,045 per capita) than in middle-income countries (up to US$12,700 per capita, where Peru is situated), 14 percent compared with 24 percent. This implies less institutional advancement leads to less recognition of rights, even though the report notes important changes have occurred in recent years.

The Peruvian case is unique. The report says Peru’s Indigenous Peoples have legal rights over 35.29 MHa (28 percent of the national territory). However, the Institute for the Common Good, IBC (Instituto del Bien Común), based in Lima, argues that an additional 26.8 MHa are not recognized.2 This would raise the total land ownership of communities and Indigenous Peoples to no less than 49 percent.

The IBC adds that the Ministry of Energy and Mines has perfectly registered the nearly 55,000 mining concessions in a fully georeferenced modern cadastral system, but there is no official database to record the boundaries of Peru’s 10,500 indigenous communities.

According to the Commission for the Formalization of Informal Property (COFOPRI), the Peruvian institution that issues property titles, only 6.7 percent of native communities and 38.5 percent of peasant communities have officially geo-referenced boundaries.3 Is a double standard in place? To be fair, geo-referencing is also rare among modern systems of property ownership, which paves the way for land traffickers.

The substantive discussion here revolves around collective ownership and development. Neoliberals believe the “commons” must be abolished to have a land market. For them, the indigenous and Amazonian “cosmovision,” a way of seeing and understanding the world which is based on principles of solidarity, will only perpetuate backwardness.

For Amazonian and native communities, it is not a matter of ignoring or rejecting the market, but rather finding the best way to relate to it while preserving their ancestral properties, rights, traditions, and knowledge (which are key for biodiversity and intellectual property). Solving that equation is not easy, of course, but it is clear—especially since the “baguazo4“—that force does not solve anything.

However, the government has not learned this lesson because its campaign against local communities continues. This is expressed in the recent “environmental laws” (especially Law 30230) that roll back local communities’ rights to prior consultation, respect for communal organization, and land planning, as well as the abolition of Ecological and Economic Zoning.

These themes have been widely debated since the late 1920s, but there is still no consensus. Surely the discussion will be reignited when the reconstruction of damaged lands and infrastructure starts. We are sure that some discussants, like Hernando de Soto, will argue that communities should have legal titles to their lands, in addition to owning the subsoil. Why does de Soto raise this issue? So that communities will have the right to negotiate directly with mining and oil companies. We will return to these issues, without forgetting that collective ownership is a global issue in an era of climate change, as emphasized by the RRI report. Therefore, legal recognition of community and indigenous lands must continue, with even greater speed.


1. Rights and Resources Initiative. 2015. Who Owns the World’s Land? A global baseline of formally recognized indigenous and community land rights. Washington, DC: RRI.

2. Instituto del Bien Común, “Communal lands: More than preserving the past is securing the future.”

3. At the international level, the geo-referencing of community and indigenous lands has increased significantly, especially with Landmark‘s initiative, the Global Platform of Indigenous and Community Lands, which maps and documents them within a single global platform.

4. This refers to the events that occurred in Bagua on June 5, 2009 when a violent conflict opposed the national police and native communities and led to the death of 33 people.