How land rights will determine whether the world fails or succeeds in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In the two-day SDG summit this week, state parties will deliberate in shaping the future of the SDG implementation. There will be a political declaration approved and adopted by state parties declaring their commitment and calling for accelerated actions for the next decade. However, for the land community, the draft declaration falls short of its aspirations. It fails to acknowledge the key role that land plays in achieving the 2030 agenda, a factor which is both a prerequisite and integral.
Land is the common ground that we stand and rely on in order to end poverty and build peaceful and just societies. The lack of recognition by member states to key stakeholders, casts doubts on how genuine the intentions towards the SDG targets.
In Malawi, land distribution is a highly unequal and inefficient affair. Large areas of land are underutilised and hold potential for high productive use. Despite the demands from the people, the Malawian government remains slow and ineffective in land reforms and distribution. The vast majority of the country’s land vests under customary law controlled by traditional leaders. This has opened many avenues for corrupt malpractices where traditional leaders mishandle their duties in exchange for personal gain. Sometimes land is transferred to investors without the knowledge of its users.
The 2018 UNDP human development index ranked Malawi at 171 out of 189 countries in the low human development category. The SDG targets relating to eradicating poverty and ending hunger are paramount to the country in this context. So if the countries are committing to sustainably reaching the development targets, land issues should be part and parcel of the discussions.
SDG goal five focuses on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. The term empowering is inextricably linked to ownership of property. Fundamentally this warrants wearing land lenses in relation to any policy discussions, its formulation and implementation relating to the goal.
Khadija, a rich peasant widow from Bangladesh inherited three acres of land from her uncle who raised her. Her sons however, deviously registered the land under their names using her fingerprint. There are social and cultural dynamics involved with this case, but if governments have mechanisms to recognise women’s rights to property legally and mechanisms to implement the law, then reaching the targets would be attainable for SDG goal five and many others. For example, the government of Bangladesh has set in motion a project to digitise all of Bangladesh’s land records, with the support of the European commission. This will make public records transparent and women’s claim to land official.
Land is part of lifestyle, culture, livelihood and tradition for rural and indigenous communities, but for some industries it is a short term money making entity. The premise of goal 16, building peace and inclusive societies and access to justice for all inherently has to be sensitive to this reality.
According to Global Witness’ latest report on attacks against land environmental defenders, 164 people have been killed in 2018 for defending their land and common environment– on average more than three a week. Many more are recorded to be criminalised. Despite global outcry on climate change and ambition on climate action under SDG 13, the statistics cast severe cynicism. The report highlights that attacks are driven by destructive industries like mining, logging and agribusiness. This abysmal situation demands the need to address land issues as a core focus in any discussion relating to SDG 16.
There are three official SDG indicators relating to land. There are many more related to land issues, yet they are not officially recognised.
Acknowledgement of land ownership and usage and its equitable distribution are inseparable with politics. Thus, the draft political declaration shows there is a reluctance to recognize land ownership. But the wholistic sustainable problem solving, policy development and their implementation shouldn’t and cannot ignore one of the pillars that the entire 2030 agenda hinges upon – the land we rely on for the very existence of human kind. The time has come to bring land issues to the forefront of SDG discussions as a cross cutting theme. Otherwise we will continue to simply say:
"NO LAND RIGHTS = NO SDGs’’
Photo credit: Jason Taylor