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Action research seeks to improve land rights and governance


In sub-Saharan Africa, and with great regularity throughout Asia, multinational corporations and national elites have spent the last decade acquiring large tracts of land. Keen to support economic growth in the agriculture, forestry, and mining sectors, many governments have streamlined or changed their land policies and laws to welcome new industries and developments. 

With the continuing demand for rural land, and with previous acquisitions ready for development, local people are bracing for the social, economic, and environmental pressures that large-scale projects are likely to produce. Even when communities are open to outside investment, they are often at risk of unfair land expropriation, loss of livelihoods and cultural heritage, reduced access to lands, and more conflict brought on by competition for land. Populations with the most to lose are women, youth, indigenous groups, and the poorest members of a community.

To raise awareness of land rights and in support of better local governance, IDRC-supported teams of researchers are partnering with communities affected by large-scale land acquisitions. Together they are co-designing research and advocacy strategies to mitigate the risks and burdens that women and vulnerable groups face due to loss of rural lands across 15 countries.

Helping communities claim their rights

The IDRC-supported research on land rights starts with a common premise, namely that local people and communities most directly affected by land acquisitions and governance challenges are best placed to advocate for positive change. Research teams are testing a variety of strategies to help make this happen.

One such strategy is the use of grassroots legal advocates, or paralegals. Since 2017, teams in Africa and Asia have been exploring how paralegals can support communities in land rights struggles. In many places, few forms of legal assistance exist to help traditional institutions, such as land collectives, speak with a united and stronger voice and use the law to defend their rights. Paralegals trained in dispute resolution and knowledgeable about the law can fill that gap.

In Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, 18 paralegals have been fully trained, half of them women. These community advocates have worked on 60 cases on behalf of smallholder farmers and people who depend on the forest for their livelihood. The goal is to develop ways for paralegals to resolve land conflicts and land use change through regulatory institutions and by pointing to improvements that would make existing protections more effective in the province.

In Uganda, communities collaborated with a group of lawyers to learn about rent regulations, which helped them resist landlords who tried to charge extortionate rents.

Another strategy being tested in all research locations involves creating village-level land committees. These committees can set the stage for many voices to rise together. In Mali, for example, recent changes to agricultural law give recognition to customary collective land rights. If they are to assert these rights, communities must develop the capacity to craft a coherent response that engages rural women and youth and includes their perspective.

How research achieves local results 

Sharing natural resources, including land, can be fraught with tension. Gaining clarity about what’s really happening in communities means that action research teams sometimes need to uncover community-level and public governance issues. This can involve making women’s voices heard, for example in Papua and West Papua, Indonesia, where action research has supported 80 indigenous women to build knowledge and leadership skills, and in the Thiès and Kaolack regions of Senegal, where  60 women now understand and can speak out about the impacts of large-scale land acquisitions on their communities.

Community-generated evidence has fed into action to obtain fair compensation in six cases of conflicts over land acquisition in Cambodia, India, and Indonesia.  

Across all regions, action research teams are supporting communities to

  • participate in and challenge decision-making processes linked to land investments;
  • develop rules to manage community lands and resources and to resolve disputes in ways that include and legitimatize the concerns of women and vulnerable groups;
  • ensure that women achieve better protection of land rights; and
  • negotiate better deals with investors.

Policy dialogue as a vital result

Obvious power imbalances exist between communities and land investors. This extends to and is mirrored in the disparities between local people and officials or politicians responsible for land laws and reforms at state and national levels.

By working with affected communities and with international partners who are aware of the guidelines that apply at a global level, the action research teams aim to ensure local-level challenges are reflected in national-level policy, laws, and practices. Harmonizing formal and informal land tenure is an overarching concern across countries. In most cases, this means that people’s customary and community land rights must be formally recognized.

Where state officials are open to dialogue, community groups are increasingly prepared to have their say. Bringing the values of community members to the corridors of power at state and national levels is an important goal in these land rights projects.

Read the full brief Using Action Research to Improve Land Rights and Governance.