By Rachael Knight, Senior Advisor, Community Land Protection, Namati
Taken together, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are a beautiful, ambitious vision for the world we aim to create for future generations. Their drafting and adoption are the result of astonishing cooperation by experts and government representatives the world over. Yet, while national- and global-level work is necessary, I argue in this blog that communities may be viewed as key drivers of the SDGs’ fulfillment. Namati’s work supporting communities to protect and document their lands and natural resources is driven by each community’s articulated future vision. As communities work towards the achievement of their visions – and, in the process, improve land governance, conserve their natural resources, protect women’s rights, and prosper through strengthened local livelihoods – they are supporting the achievement of the SDGs, at the most local level.
I. Context: Namati’s Community Land Protection Approach
For billions of rural people, land is their greatest asset: the source of food and water, the site of their livelihoods, and the locus of history, culture, and community. Yet more than ever, rural land is in demand: as global demand for land and natural resources rises, rural communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America are increasingly approached by international investors and national elites seeking land for logging, mining, and agribusiness ventures. In partnership with innovative local land rights organizations, Namati’s Community Land Protection Program supports communities to protect, document, and defend their customary and indigenous land rights. Nearly a decade of experimentation and co-design have resulted in a powerful five-part approach to documenting community lands as a whole, including both common areas and family land. Briefly, this approach includes the following five steps:
- Laying the Groundwork. This step, designed to build trust and unity, includes a “visioning” exercise that supports community members to plan for the future and understand the benefits of formally documenting their land claims; a basic valuation exercise that helps communities understand the monetary value of their lands and natural resources to them, based on the replacement cost of what they currently harvest and use; and the creation of a “Coordinating Committee” and/or the election of “Community Mobilizers” responsible for ensuring widespread participation in all community land protection activities and spreading information about project efforts throughout the community.
- Strengthening Community Governance of Lands and Natural Resources. To ensure good governance and sustainable natural resource management, this step includes a “bylaws drafting” process, in which communities collectively brainstorm all of their existing rules for land governance and management, and then, in light of national laws and their future vision, revitalize old rules that have fallen out of practice, create new rules to ensure future prosperity, eliminate rules that violate women’s rights, national laws and human rights principles, and modify existing rules to reflect emerging community needs. Then, after a legal review, the community formal adopts their bylaws and elects a diverse, representative “Land Governance Council” to manage community lands and natural resources according to the adopted bylaws.
- Harmonizing Boundaries and Documenting Community Lands. This step includes boundary harmonization and land conflict resolution, during which communities meet with their neighbors to negotiate, agree, and document all shared boundaries (using written agreements, photos, videos, boundary trees, and formal markers). Communities then complete a participatory community mapping exercise using sketch maps and satellite imagery, then finally work with technicians to formally survey and map their lands in accordance with national laws and regulations.
- Government Registration and Titling. Once their bylaws are adopted and their lands mapped, communities follow national legal procedures to formally register their lands and receive state documentation of their rights.
- Preparing Communities to Prosper. After the community land documentation process is complete, communities are supported to prepare themselves to negotiate with potential future investors who may come seeking land and resources; creating an action plan to realize their future vision; and connecting to livelihood supports and ecosystem regeneration training.
Our local partner organizations work with each community to co-design an adaptation of this process best suited to the community’s specific concerns and interests and aligned with the local legal, political and ecological context. From start to finish, the process takes an average of 18 months, depending on program design, the strength of community leadership, the degree of community motivation, the existence of eternal threats to local tenure security, and the political will of government officials to formally document community lands.
Community members in Siahn, Rivercess County, Liberia, prepare to meet with their neighbors to plant a boundary tree, supported by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI).
II. Community Land Protection and the SDGs: Visioning a Desired Future
A pivotal moment during the inception of community land protection efforts is an activity that we call “Visioning.” During this meeting, community members are guided through a four-part exercise.
First, facilitators ask the community to describe “What your lands, natural resources and community relations were like in the past, 50 years ago, when today’s elders were children.” Elders usually become very animated during this time, and say things like: “It took 15 minutes to gather enough wood to cook our food;” “We would all get together and help neighbors build their houses; people supported one another;” “There were so many animals in the forest to hunt;” “The water in our rivers was clean and clear;” and “We had festivals and dances that brought our community together and celebrated our culture.”
Second, facilitators ask, “What is it like in your community today?” During this time, everyone speaks up, and “shouts out” observations like: “It takes two hours to gather enough firewood;” “There is competition between everyone for resources;” “There are so few animals in the forest to hunt;” “We don’t have celebrations and dances anymore, so there is nowhere for young people to meet and find a husband or wife;” “Our rivers are polluted, people are fishing with mosquito nets;” “We have a clinic nearby now;” (not everything has gotten worse!) and so forth.
Third, facilitators ask the community to close their eyes and imagine “How things will be in the future if nothing changes.” Usually, this results in a moment of silence, and immense grief emerges as people imagine the full picture of future land and resource scarcity. At a recent meeting in Sierra Leone, an elder began weeping quietly. Facilitators are trained to allow the community to sit in this silence for as long as it takes for a community member to break it. Usually, people then say things like, “There will not be enough food to feed our families;” “Our children will have no land;” “There will be no more fish in the rivers, no more animals to hunt, no more trees…”
Finally, facilitators ask the community to collectively vision their “desired future.” At this time, community members in almost every community we have done this exercise with brainstorm more or less the exact same vision in a large brainstorming session (which is written down and kept for future reference): they want land tenure security; clean water and abundant food; flourishing forests teeming with biodiversity; to practice their local, land-based livelihoods and become prosperous; good education for their children; health clinics nearby to heal their sick and birth their babies; access to good telecommunications networks and electricity; and to re-institute or strengthen the celebrations, ceremonies and rites of passage that strengthen their culture and weave their community together in a network of support and cooperation.
Facilitators then support each community to design community land protection efforts that will take them towards their future vision. The visioning exercise takes only two or so hours to facilitate, but places the community’s own goals at the center of the land protection process and supports communities to ask: once our lands are secure, how do we want to shape the course of our own development and future prosperity?
In preparation for writing this blog, I read the SDG’s from start to finish. What I was struck by was how closely the SDGs resembled every community’s desired future. The SDGs are an astoundingly beautiful document; global aspirations for a future world we want to create, paired with clear plans and indicators to guide us in getting there. And they are just like local communities’ visions, from places as different from one another as Nepal, Kenya, Myanmar, and Sierra Leone.
Women in Padanaha community, Bardiya District, Nepal discuss community bylaws, led by the Community Self-Reliance Centre (CSRC).
III. Impacts of community land protection: achieving the Sustainable Development Goals locally
Comprehensive community land protection efforts that emphasize good governance, gender equity, conflict resolution and community empowerment have the potential to foster profound changes that go far beyond documentation of land claims. Such impacts go towards the very local realization at least eight of the Sustainable Development Goals:
- Community land protection and documentation efforts contribute directly to Goal 1.4. (By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to …ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources…[As measured by] the proportion of total adult population with secure tenure rights to land, with legally recognized documentation and who perceive their rights to land as secure, by sex and by type of tenure.
- The valuation activity and the strengthened land and natural resources management aspects of the bylaws drafting process often lead communities to work collaboratively to regenerate local ecosystems and sustainably use and manage their natural resources. Communities across a wide range of ecological contexts pass bylaws such as: “No logging should be done around water catchment areas…The community shall undertake tree planting along all water catchment and deforested areas” (Mashama community, Sierra Leone); and “There shall be no cultivating the communal land and adjacent wetland. Anyone caught cultivating either shall be liable to restore the land as it was and pay a fine” (Burlobo community, Uganda). Communities often set aside a portion of their forests as “reserve forests,” make strong rules to stop poaching and illegal timber harvesting in their territories, and otherwise “legislate” protections for local natural resource conservation.
Such bylaws go directly towards meeting Goal 15.2 (“By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally); Goal 15.5 (“Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species); and Goal 15.9 (By 2020, integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts).
- When well facilitated, the bylaws drafting process can provide an opportunity for women and members of minority groups to challenge discriminatory practices and argue for stronger protections for their land rights, as well as increase women’s participation in local land governance. After significant reflection on longstanding social and cultural norms, communities often pass bylaws such as “All female community members must be considered equal members of the community and hence have same rights to land and natural resources as male members….all female community members should have their rightful share to inheritance of land/property” (Sasimwani community, Kenya) and “The committee shall have a total of 13 members (11 elective and 2 co-opted members) of whom a third should be women. The committee should also have minority, youth, disabled and women representatives” (Chara community, Kenya).
Such impacts directly support the fulfillment of Goal 5.A (“Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws) and Goal 16.7 (“Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels…[as measured by the] proportions of positions (by sex, age, persons with disabilities and population groups) in public institutions (national and local legislatures, public service, and judiciary) compared to national distributions.”
- The by-laws drafting process, and the election of a representative “Land Governance Council” ensure inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making about a community’s lands and natural resources. Most communities’ bylaws mandate that significant decisions about how community land will be managed or transacted will be decided by a supermajority of all adult community members, and that leaders cannot sell or transact land without informing or involving the community. Almost every community also includes rules such as “All members of the Communal Land Association shall have the right to freely participate in all the management of the common land regardless of sex, age, status, religion” (Anyomorem community, Uganda) or “The selection of any committee should include women, Dalit, indigenous, landless and other marginalized groups of people in the main decision making position” (Magaragadi community, Nepal). These rules go directly to the realization of Goal 16.6 (“Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels”) and Goal 16.7 (“Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels).”
Some may argue that such community-level efforts do not contribute significantly to the national or global fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals; a counter argument is that it is precisely at the local level where such goals are met. The excellent high-level goals of experts and technocrats now must be driven by community-level action. Rather than viewing communities as passive recipients of SDG-related improvements, communities must be seen as and empowered to be key drivers of the desired changes, and their dreams and future visions – the same vision as that set out in the SDGs – taken seriously, championed, and supported.
 A soon-to-be-published study of the mid-line effects of a community land protection effort in Liberia, led by Namati’s partner, the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) found significant governance impacts. The study concludes: “Comparing treatment and control communities, there is a significant increase in trust, satisfaction, perceived accountability, capacity, and transparency of leaders. Households in treatment areas are more likely to express confidence in their leaders’ ability to protect their forests, their ethical behavior, and in the clarity and fairness of their decision-making processes. The results hold in the qualitative and quantitative data. We also find that the Community Land Protection Program increased the systematic creation of land rules and their enforcement. We find that households in treatment communities are more likely to be involved in developing land rules, and that respondents in these communities are more satisfied with land rules, and more likely to believe that leaders punish rule-breakers.” The study was funded by the International Development Research Centre and USAID, and carried out by The CloudBurst Group. (https://land-links.org/evaluation/community-land-protection-program-clpp-liberia/).