Inequality is increasing in almost all regions in the world. This also applies to access to land. This was a key message from Benjamin Davis, FAO’s head of department for inclusive rural transformation and gender justice, during a panel at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture bringing together experts to discuss how the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Tenure of Land can be used to strengthen farmers land rights. The concentration of agricultural land threatens the livelihoods of 2.5 billion people worldwide.

How can smallholder farmers in particular, as well as members of indigenous peoples and rural communities at large, assert their legitimate right to equitable and secure access to land?

Ten years after the adoption of the UN Land Guidelines, experts agree that the political and legal frameworks have improved in many countries. However, at the local level, the impact of the guidelines is still barely evident, emphasized the panel’s moderator and director of the International Land Coalition, Mike Taylor. Farmers’ land rights continue to be massively curtailed and long-time land users are often expropriated without adequate consultation and compensation. Women in particular usually have no opportunity to defend themselves, explained Naome Kabanda from the Ugandan Ministry of Land, Housing and Urban Development.

“One common denominator of the VGGT is the flexibility of the instrument and its relevance in different regional contexts.”

This is where the work of civil society and constituency-based organizations in the Global South comes in. Though the UN Guidelines are only “soft law,” meaning they are not binding, they can be used to bring about concrete changes, as Sonkita Conteh of Namati in Sierra Leone explained: through broad-based awareness campaigns, local communities are encouraged to demand their legitimate rights vis-à-vis governments and investors; integrated into concrete lease agreements with investors key provisions of the Guidelines are “given teeth”; in dialogue spaces, the guidelines are used to resolve land conflicts; and in multi-actor platforms, the guidelines are used to promote transparency and accountability in the land sector. 

“Despite the VGGT are being perceived as a high-level instrument for policy makers, it is at the local level where scalable progress has been made.”

All speakers agreed that such experiences need to be taken to scale. We are urged to act: promoting collective action, boosting investment and reaffirming political will.

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