To end deforestation, we must protect community land rights

Welcome to Vol. 3 of Big Ideas. In Brief—a series from the Rights and Resources Initiative.


While the 2020 deadline is fast approaching, there’s still time for companies, governments, civil society, and communities to make progress toward zero deforestation commitments;

The private sector has a unique role to play in the fight against climate change and deforestation—by respecting the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in their operations;

Investors and companies have more technology, tools, and collective knowledge at their disposal than ever before to shift toward rights-based business models. These include the Interlaken Group, a global network that develops new tools and guidance to accelerate private sector learning.

Ending deforestation is crucial to achieving a host of global goals, including preventing a climate crisis, sustaining rural livelihoods and preserving natural biodiversity.

To this end, companies, investors, governments, civil society and communities have made ambitious commitments to reduce deforestation by 2020. These include the New York Declaration on Forests’ goal to halve natural forest loss, the Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of degraded forest, and the Consumer Goods Forum’s commitment to net zero deforestation in palm oil, soy, beef, and paper supply chains.

But companies are finding that pervasive insecurity of community land rights in the global south is making implementation difficult. If they are to succeed, companies must prioritize respecting the land rights of indigenous peoples, local communities and rural women affected by their operations. This reduces deforestation, protects their bottom lines and benefits local peoples.

In May 2018, key actors in the global struggle against deforestation gathered for the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 General Assembly in Ghana to take stock and accelerate action on their commitments. While the 2020 deadline is fast approaching, new spaces for private sector-civil society collaboration, ongoing tenure reforms and encouraging pilot projects indicate potential to ramp up corporate progress toward reducing deforestation and respecting community land rights.

Nearly all land investments in the global south affect rural communities. One study indicated that at least 93% of 73,000 natural resource concessions in 10 developing countries were inhabited. While indigenous peoples and rural communities historically own more than half the world’s lands and forests, governments only recognize their rights to about 10%. Because communities have long protected the world’s natural resources, inadequate recognition of their rights puts at risk the forests and waters we all depend on for global environmental sustainability. Without secure rights, conflict and deforestation often follow.

Insecure rights also threaten companies’ bottom lines and long-term financial success. Disputes over land between companies and local communities frequently lead to conflict, work stoppages, and stalled investments.

These conflicts are of course detrimental to local peoples, but they are also costly to investors. More than half of 288 land-related conflicts between companies and communities examined in one global study remain unresolved, with many dragging on for years. The problem continues to grow: there has been a 300% increase in tenure disputes since 2003.

Changing business models to respect rights is a significant undertaking. Even the most sophisticated investors and companies face challenges in implementing respect for rights across complex global supply chains. Coordination is limited, and results and lessons are still not widely shared. But this is beginning to change. Investors and companies have more technology, tools and collective knowledge at their disposal than ever before.

My own organization helped catalyze the Interlaken Group, a pre-competitive network of leaders from progressive companies, investors, NGOs and indigenous peoples’ organizations who collaborate to develop and disseminate new tools and accelerate private sector learning about respecting land rights.

Most recently, the Interlaken Group developed corporate guidance on land legacy issues – a notoriously thorny and controversial topic – that received buy-in from civil society, companies and investors alike.

Many companies are already collaborating with civil society on pilot projects and testing these tools on the ground. Nestlé used the Interlaken Group’s guidance on the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT) – a set of standards put forth by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on land tenure – to assess the performance of its palm oil suppliers on tenure issues in Indonesia.

With funding from the UK government, Illovo Sugar worked with the NGO Landesa in Malawi toward resolving a longstanding conflict with local communities. This included mapping historic tenure claims and helping Landesa develop a due diligence tool for working with estates and outgrowers. The Forest Trust is piloting its Kumacaya mechanism to support community monitoring of company supply chains using new technologies. Critically, these stakeholders are sharing successes and lessons from these experiences with their peers to accelerate learning.

Ongoing land reform processes in a number of countries have also laid the legal groundwork necessary to clarify the operating environment for companies and investors, and reduce land tenure-related risks.

Implementation of progressive legislation in countries such as India, Indonesia, Kenya and Peru, among others, could secure the rights of communities to more than 200 million hectares of rural land. And while implementation and political will remain obstacles in many cases, new financing institutions, such as the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, are making rights recognition at scale possible.

While 2020 is fast approaching, there is still time to make progress towards zero deforestation. With tenure reforms and financing for implementation available, and companies working with a portfolio of new tools and partners to clean up their supply chains, there is reason to be optimistic. 

About the author: Bryson Ogden is a Senior Analyst at the Rights and Resources Initiative, where he leads the coordination and generation of RRI’s analytical work and private sector engagement efforts. He specializes in the connections between business, tenure, and the environment.

This opinion editorial was originally published on the World Economic Forum and is reproduced here with permission.