Their land, their voices

Imke Greven Land rights

Their land, their voicesAbout the importance of meaningful community engagement with local communities

Land rights of local communities are often threatened in the context of increased demand for land and natural resources. A community’s choice to give, or withhold, their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) to a project or activity planned to take place on their land is a recognized right of Indigenous peoples under international law. It is also a best practice principle that applies to all communities affected by projects or activities on the land, water and forests that they rely on.

For the 2020 World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, Oxfam submitted a selected number of papers for presentation. Through a series of three blogs, these papers will be discussed. This blog focusses on the importance of meaningful community engagement and the right and good practice of free, prior and informed consent. Experience is drawn from Oxfam colleagues and partners in India, Sri Lanka and Uganda.

Lack of compliance

Despite legal frameworks, the process of seeking consent is often diluted and there is no long-term engagement with communities. For example, in India, the law makes it mandatory that consent of indigenous and other communities who hold traditional land rights are obtained before acquiring land for large-scale projects.

In reality, an analysis of over 700 cases of ongoing land conflicts by Land Conflict Watch found that projects are stalled because community consent is not sought. This is a worrying trend.

The list of projects exempted from good FPIC processes is growing. An analysis of the Supreme Court cases on land acquisitions indicates that 95% of disputes arose due to non-compliance with legal procedures for acquisition.

In contrast with India, our research showed that Sri Lanka’s legal framework does not facilitate community consultations or compliance with FPIC principles when land is taken over. In Sri Lanka, communities who depend on land are told that their lands are now required for ‘public purposes’, a sacrifice for the greater good. This a denial of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

State officials were often unwilling to divulge information on planned development projects and as a consequence, communities were left in the dark. Shrinking civic space exacerbates the problem as community leaders and CSOs are prevented from working effectively on rights-related issues.

There are many examples where FPIC processes are carried out on paper only and communities become aware of a project when notices of land acquisition are sent or physical construction on the ground commences.  Meetings about these projects and land acquisition are held in high-security zones and in an intimidating atmosphere.  Lack of access to these meeting means that communities have little prior knowledge of the projects and their impacts. When rights over land are guaranteed, people access the judicial system and when it is not, they protest on the ground.

The responsibilities of involved stakeholders

The multiple benefits of applying free, prior and informed consent are recognized in a growing number of industries. FPIC is included in standards in sectors ranging from palm oil (RSPO) to mining (IRMA) to forestry (FSC). Companies and banks that operate with the FPIC of local communities are better able to respect a range of human rights, avoid exposure to corruption or malpractice, identify potential sources of conflict and act early to ensure disputes can be resolved.

FPIC embeds processes that empower communities to act on concerns at each stage of a project or operation. This better enables issues to be identified and addressed early on. An increasing number of banks and financial sector frameworks include FPIC commitments. However, banks not only have to commit to seeking FPIC: the commitment has to translate into meaningful action, with clear accountabilities.

How to implement a good FPIC process?

There are many guides developed on how to implement an FPIC process and have a meaningful community engagement respecting the choice of the communities. For example, developed by FAO, Namati, Interlaken, AIPP or Oxfam.

One of the presentations planned during the Land & Poverty conference, was a presentation of the implementation of the CET tool in Uganda. The CET is based on agreed global principles for gender equality, equity, human rights, self-determination and development of communities as well as national economic development. It provides a framework which improves the likelihood of communities benefiting from land investments, in the interests of sustainable livelihoods, secure land rights and good governance.

In 2018, over 500 community members in Ajer community in Amuru district negotiated favourable terms including registration of their lands by Eden Group of companies (agroforestry company) before the commencement of their investments. In 2020, Oxfam trained and supported staff of the Uganda Ministry of Lands Housing and Urban Development (MoLHUD) that rolled out the tool in 4 sub-counties in Namutumba district to empower communities to renegotiate investment terms with the respective sugar company.

You can find more information on Oxfam’s land work here


Imke Greven