Why equitable land governance is critical for resilient food systems and healthy communities

Across Africa, issues related to land tenure security pose a challenge to combatting land degradation and improving the lives of smallholder farming communities. This article breaks down what tenure governance is, why it's essential for building resilient food systems, and how RFS collaborates with partners to improve land tenure governance at a global and regional level.

Land tenure security is at the heart of resilient food systems

Land tenure systems exist everywhere. Where land is shared or cordoned off into private property, there are rules that regulate who has access to the land, who can use the land's natural resources, for how long and under what conditions. Depending on where you are in the world, these systems can be informal or formal, written or unwritten. An important feature of land tenure is that it defines not just who has the right to use the land but also who can control and transfer that land from one person or body to another.

In areas where there is high tenure security, those rights are strongly protected. Farmers are more willing to invest in their land and have better access to finance. This stability creates a virtuous cycle whereby farmers invest more in land management and productivity, thereby increasing yields and land health, which generates more income and enables further investment. The result? Communities with improved food security and greater resilience to economic- and climate-related shocks.

Unfortunately, land tenure security is not always enforced or applied equitably or consistently – especially in the rural areas of low-income countries (for more reading on this topic, check out CGIAR's Collective Action and Property Rights research programme). In communities where land tenure rights are weakly protected or, in some cases, ignored because of corruption, there is little incentive for smallholder farmers to invest in better and more sustainable farming practices. Why invest in land that may not be yours tomorrow?

Africa's land tenure systems are under increasing pressure

With a rapidly growing population, Africa's agricultural land is becoming scarcer. Many rural communities are transitioning from a rights-based approach that provides land access to locally born (typically male) community members to a market-based approach that sells and rents land as a commodity. This shift has spurred demand by international and national investors keen to cash in on Africa's potential as the future "breadbasket of the world".

As more land is allocated to large- and mid-size farms, smallholder farms are squeezed onto smaller tracts of land. To feed their families and maintain their livelihoods, farmers often double down on unsustainable farming practices to get more out of the land. This intensification leads to land degradation, declining productivity and increasing vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather events.

In the face of these drivers, RFS countries are adapting and finding innovative ways of working within existing land tenure systems to facilitate community-led rehabilitation and protect the rights of community members. In Eswatini, the country project is engaging with traditional leaders to secure letters of land access for farmers prior to rolling out restoration projects within those areas. In Tanzania, the project’s village land use planning process is helping communities make collective decisions about land use, working within the traditional communal land tenure system.

The international community is ramping up efforts to improve land tenure security globally

RFS country projects are a testament to the positive impact of sustainable land management practices on smallholder farmers communities. However, scaling up sustainable agricultural practices and investing in restoring degraded landscapes without secure land tenure is a major challenge.

Sustainable land management requires long-term planning and monitoring. There are often high immediate investment costs with benefits that only become tangible in the future (agroforestry is a great example of this). Long-term solutions, like planting trees, are difficult to promote if a farmer's right or access to land is uncertain. When rural communities' land rights are formally recorded and legally recognised, it's easier for farmers to invest in sustainable practices and rehabilitation, knowing that they, and their children, will be able to reap the benefits of their labour.

In recognition of the central role that land tenure security plays in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Committee on World Food Security, based at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), officially endorsed Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT) in 2012. The ground-breaking guidelines, developed in collaboration with over 1000 stakeholders from different cultural backgrounds, outline principles to guide governments in making laws and policies that govern land, fisheries, and forests rights.

While consensus has been built around the framework at the international level, not enough progress has been made in translating the guidelines into widespread action at the national level.

In 2019, parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) recognised the immediate need to place land tenure at the centre of discussions around achieving land degradation neutrality (LDN). At the 14th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP14) in New Delhi - during which RFS held a side event focusing on the linkages between sustainable land management and food security outcomes - UNCCD adopted a note titled 'New and emerging issues: land tenure', which underscores the importance of integrating VGGT into target setting and implementation of LDN activities.

RFS will play a role in shaping VGGT guidance for years to come 

Following COP14, RFS Regional Hub partner FAO has supported UNCCD in developing a technical guide for integrating VGGT into LDN policies and activities at the country level. The aim of the guide, which will be presented at COP15 in 2022, is to help governments achieve their LDN targets and raise awareness and build capacity on VGGT. 

Since June 2020, FAO, in collaboration with UNCCD, has organised a series of inclusive multi-stakeholder e-consultations to develop the guide. This summer and fall, the Regional Hub, in partnership with FAO's Land and Water Division, will contribute to this effort, holding a series of workshops for 17 African countries, including all 12 RFS countries.

The series will focus on gathering key lessons and experiences and raising country team awareness of the important role land tenure security plays in combatting land degradation and improving food security outcomes. FAO held initial consultations with RFS country projects in July 2021 to help gather information and compile a list of potential case studies. FAO will further develop these case studies during the awareness and capacity building sessions running through October.

Land tenure security feeds into many different aspects of sustainable development but is often considered "too complex" to integrate into ecosystem restoration or food security programmes. In many ways, the integrated nature of the RFS programme, with its focus on approaches that span sectors and areas of expertise, can help reverse this thinking.

As the work leading up to COP15 progresses, RFS country projects will be well placed to provide insight into how land tenure issues impact food security projects and programmes on the ground – and contribute towards the development of solutions. We look forward to sharing these insights with you as lessons emerge from the FAO VGGT workshop series.

Stay tuned! 

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