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World’s poorest need land rights to cope with climate change

Cleared forest area under development as a palm oil plantation- we are not all equally affected by climate change. (Courtesy of Landesa)

We are not all equally affected by climate change.

While the recent tornados in the U.S. Midwest and last year’s hurricane Sandy along the U.S. east coast – as well as Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines this month - may make us all feel vulnerable no matter where in the world we call home, climate change (which scientists increasingly believe is responsible for the general rise in the number and severity of storms), impacts the poor in the developing world the most.

This is not just because the world’s poorest live in areas – like the Philippines and India – that are more prone to natural disasters. The poor also are more dependent on natural resources and land impacted by climate change – more often than not they rely on the land to survive.  And they often have insecure control over those resources – leaving them highly vulnerable.  

With world leaders ending the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, it is important to keep in mind just how deeply the world’s poorest – those rural small-holder farmers who do not have secure legal rights to the land upon which they rely – are impacted by climate change.

Consider a typical farmer in Africa. Climate change will force her to travel further to fetch water for her family. It may make water to irrigate her crops harder to find. It will also bring increased competition for the land on which she depends.  

Moreover, global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change will also have a significant impact on that African farmer’s ability to continue to use the natural resources and land upon which she depends.

Consider two much-touted way of reducing climate-changing emissions: the use biofuels and REDD+, a programme aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

Both are seen as important tools in the fight to reduce climate pollution. And both can have unintended negative consequences for the world’s poorest.

Let’s examine biofuels first. The biofuel boom is real. Investors are looking for cheap land on which to grow biofuels to replace fossil fuels. Many have turned to Africa, increasing the demand for agricultural land on the continent. This has led to conflict over land and thedisplacement of entire communities whose rights to the land are insecure.

As countries around the world adopt mandates for biofuel production (the European Union and the United States have already done so) and demand for biofuels increases, higher land values and changes to land access for the poor will result.

Biofuel land in many countries also reduces the acreage for food production, increasing food prices.

Biofuel production is not inherently bad – it can and has provided income generation opportunities in rural communities. But it needs to be more carefully managed and regulated to ensure that the landless poor are not displaced.

Likewise, international efforts to combat climate change by preventing forest loss or degradation through programs like REDD +, may, if not done correctly, result in the loss of lands and access to forests and forest resources by traditional residents and users that rely on these resources for their livelihoods.

The inclination when protecting resources is to set up fences and restrict access – which can mean that communities who traditionally use the land but don’t have legal control find themselves fenced out without consultation or compensation. But research suggests that conservations efforts are more effective if local communities who have been using the forest are empowered as stewards and benefit from its conservation, as is supposed to – but does not always - happen under REDD+.

In the face of climate change, countries, from Tanzania to East Timor, are calling on farmers to farm the land more sustainably, and rightly so. A key strategy must be giving farmers secure, legal control over the land to ensure they have a long-term stake in sustainable land use.  

Consider the case of a farmer who does not securely control her land. Leaving the land fallow for one year, is an invitation for a neighbor to seize that fallow land and use it. Likewise, a community’s decision to preserve a nearby forest may be viewed as an opportunity by another community to quickly harvest that resource for their own benefit.

Perhaps there is no better example of this than in China. The tenure insecurity of China’s farmers has driven their singular focus on short-term gain.  China's farmers, whose land has increasingly been taken to feed rapid urbanization, are the world's largest consumers of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Around the world, women are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This is primarily because women have less secure rights to land than men and because “women’s work,” in much the developing world includes tasks heavily impacted by climate change such as fetching water, and planting and maintaining kitchen gardens to  feed their families.

Our climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts don’t have to come at the expense of small-holder farmers.  But we need to acknowledge that more often than not the families and communities most impacted by climate change –and by our responses to it - do not have secure rights to land and therefore face a host of added vulnerabilities.

Mike Lufkin is an attorney and land tenure specialist and Yu Gao is China country director with Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor women and men.

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