As the Native American-led protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline turned into one of the largest environmental movements of the last decades, it became clear once more that the question of who has the right to use land is a highly political issue with enormous conflict potential. When land is at stake, frequently marginalized indigenous peoples, women and children face off against state-supported corporations: Traditional land use rights and securing one's own livelihood versus profit interests. In its new dossier „Land and Conflict Prevention – How integrated solutions can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals“, the Working Group on Peace and Development (FriEnt), of whom the FES is a member, examines the links between violent conflicts, access to land and gender. Case studies showcase how violent conflicts over land and resources can be prevented, and what role women play in this. One thing is clear: The Sustainable Development Goal “Peaceful Societies” is closely interlinked with other SDGs from the United Nations 2030 Agenda, such “Food Stability”.
We spoke with the two initiators of the dossier, Caroline Kruckow and Marc Baxmann from FriEnt, on why the issue of land is becoming increasingly more volatile. We also talked about why it it so important that the UN has chosen to focus on the SDG “Peaceful Societies” this year in particular, and the role of civil society organizations and activists that advocate for fair land use.
Caroline Kruckow und Marc Baxmann: In many areas of the world, access to land and its use is paramount to survival for large parts of the population. Due to climate change, food crises and economic interests, land is becoming more and more valuable, and land-ownership is becoming an increasingly relevant economic factor and thus, at the same time, a source of conflict. Land and land ownership, as well as the right to use this land, do not only contribute to food security and agricultural production, but also encompass crucial sociocultural aspects. Marginalized communities at the periphery of society and indigenous population groups in particular, frequently do not have secure access to land. Even though they have lived on and used this land, often for generations, their land rights are not acknowledged or taken into account. Many times, they have to yield to large-scale mining, infrastructure, agricultural or investment projects or are displaced by force. Unclear legal statuses and land ownership structures, as well as use rivalries such as between farmers and nomadic pastoralists, can cause local conflicts that often turn violent. The conflict dynamics are exacerbated when land, water, fishing grounds and forests become scarce due to the factors discussed above, such as major projects, climate change, population growth or war and natural disasters.
In many countries, women's rights of land use is not secure; accordingly, they are particularly affected by conflicts over land use. Simultaneously, as we have all known for a long time, women play a vital role for food security, but also in conflict regulation and building peaceful societies.
The urgency of the land issue – not least because it is the source of many violent conflicts in the Global South – has recently been acknowledged by international organizations as well. The 2008 joint study “Pathways for Peace”, conducted by the United Nations and World Bank, as well as the UN guideline „The United Nations and Land and Conflict“, which was only published in March 2019, can be considered milestones in this regard. In “Pathways for Peace”, the UN and the World Bank emphasize that crisis prevention strategies must include significant risks such as access to land, extraction of natural resources, security, justice and the rule of law, and also the provision of basic services.
The binding guideline „The United Nations and Land and Conflict“ urges UN subsidiary organizations and member states to find a coherent approach to addressing land disputes as a source of violent conflicts, which explicitly includes strategies that focus on prevention. The fundamental goal is a comprehensive and inclusive solution to land disputes, which encompasses strengthening country-specific rights of indigenous populations and women.
This year, the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) looked at Sustainable Development Goal 16 for the first time. With this, it sent a signal: SDG 16 is about peaceful, just and inclusive societies. Its intention is to reduce and prevent violence at all levels. In the past years, it has not become easier to start efforts whose aim is the prevention and solution of violent conflicts. For this reason, SDG 16 was put front and center at the High Level Political Forum 2019 in New York – as a positive impulse in times of rising violence and global tendencies towards authoritarianism.
FriEnt and its partner organizations took this occasion to develop the Dossier on Land and Conflict Prevention, on the basis of which we were able to make our own contribution to the HLPF and the thematic Review of SDG 16. The aim of the project was to find out in what way this topic is interlinked with different SDGs and how, by tackling the land issue, it can work towards their implementation. The contributions in the dossier identify positive examples for peaceful solutions to land disputes in the Global South. Building on this basis, we were able to pinpoint successful pathways and possible difficulties and promote the international discourse on SDG16, its connection to land and further interlinkages while in New York.
According to the 2030 Agenda's preamble, the “interlinkages and integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals are of crucial importance”. The SDGs are supposed to support each other. The wide thematic approach taken by the SDGs makes it possible to illuminate heretofore under-examined interdependencies and synergies of peace and sustainable development and to develop new integrated approaches. In this regard, examples of good practice can be just as valuable as building new, cross-sector partnerships for learning and implementation.
Precisely. It is interesting that these interlinkages are constantly looked for, yet the one between SDG 16 and goals surrounding the issue of land has, so far, been surprisingly underexposed. For example, SDG 2 goes far beyond food in the narrow sense and stresses the importance of secure and equal access to fertile land. Here, land use rights are defined as the key to food security and food sovereignty. Because access to and control over land and natural resources is the root cause of violence, expulsion and human rights violations in many countries, the joint implementation of SDG 2 and SDG 16 is imperative. In many conflict and post-conflict contexts, the secure and equal access to land is one of the central issues for the population and for civil society.
An independently acting civil society and critical activists get involved with politically sensitive topics like land and peace or gender and conflict prevention and serve as a critical counterpoint to governments, the private sector and multilateral institutions. This needs to be acknowledged and supported. The case studies in the dossier show the extensive and constructive conflict regulation and prevention that various engaged local activists can achieve. Without these voices from civil society and the advocacy for all parts of society, it will not be possible to implement the 2030 Agenda and the tenet to “leave nobody behind”.
It is therefore particularly concerning that civil society actors are under massive pressure at the moment. The number of land rights and environmental activists killed in the past years is higher than it ever was, as international organizations such as Global Witness report.
The complex connections between global shifts and local or regional disputes and conflicts of interest should not be forgotten. Land and natural resources, just like gender equality and human rights, play a vital role for peace promotion and conflict prevention.
In terms of political advocacy, this means that these connections need to be continuously empathized In addition, the fact that SDGs are interlinked with each other should be stressed. As the diverse case studies from all over the world profiled in the dossier show, there are good practice examples on both the local and the regional level. However, on the ground, the political will to implement the SDGs in a serious, integrated and inclusive manner is often lacking. Also, against the background of the increasingly dangerous work of civil society actors, assertiveness against political elites, the economic sector and international players and the will to push these inclusive approaches, even against the politically stronger, often falls short.
FriEnt members can use the examples from the dossier in their own work in order to influence the political agenda and to ensure that the link between SDG 16 and land- or gender-based SDGs is strengthened.
The FriEnt Dossier “Land and Conflict Prevention” is available at: https://www.frient.de/publikationen/dokument/?tx_ggfilelibrary_pi1%5Bcontainer%5D=540&tx_ggfilelibrary_pi1%5Baction%5D=show&cHash=8208289f32cca0c80779ee3ba2959921