How are land rights connected to climate justice?

Pubudini Wickramaratne Climate Change, Land rights, Research

Land is at the heart of people’s lives, providing the basis for food production, water, housing and sustaining rural livelihoods. Loss and damage to land not only affect the land rights of local communities but also all other aspects of their lives. Pubudini Wickramaratne and Rashmini de Silva introduce a new paper that spotlights the voices of rural Asians suffering loss and damage to their land and explain how secure land rights are essential to increasing climate resilience.

woman looking over river
“I could keep nothing as my own, life took everything away again,” says Forida Begum as she looks over the river that took away her family’s house in Chilmari, north Bangaldesh. The house and land was destroyed by erosion. (Picture: Jahangir Alam)

“We don’t receive any… support for climate mitigation or adaption from the Agrarian Services Department. We are unable to register for crop insurance or drought relief. This is because they don’t recognize us as farmers as we don’t own this land. We can’t get any relief when our crops fail during droughts.”

This powerful testimony from Namal Sanjeewa, a farmer from the drought-stricken Monaragala District in Sri Lanka, illustrates clearly how insecure land tenure has prevented him from accessing drought relief – all because he did not own his land.

Our recent paper, Loss and Damage to Land – Voices from Asia, depicts stories of Asian communities on the frontline of the climate crisis and reveals how land ownership plays an important role in enabling people to face the impacts of climate change. Secure land tenure not only helps communities to cope with impacts of climate change better, gives them access to vital support to recover from loss and damage, but also puts them in a position to make decisions and invest on climate adaption and mitigation.

Overall, the paper shows how secure land tenure increases the climate resilience of communities. We found evidence of this when we listened to women and men from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste.

Why farmers urgently need support to cope with climate damage

Giving local communities access to support and helping them to prepare for extreme weather events has become an urgent challenge because of the devastating loss and damage caused by the climate crisis. This is most acutely felt by people such as H.M. Morshed from Bangladesh who lives on the banks of the river Bishkhali, and who has lost over 80% of his family’s land to river erosion.

“When the Bishkahli river had a solid embankment, my land was still protected and I could cultivate there, but after the floods broke the embankment, further erosion took the lands away, and now the banks of the river are very close to my house. We only see an increasing risk of losing the little bit of land we have to live and make a living from.”

Clearly, the impacts of the climate crisis on land are immense: it causes loss of land, soil erosion, land degradation that forces changes in land use, threatens the land rights of communities, causes displacement, affects food security and aggravates land inequality.

Changing climate patterns have forced Morshed to change his farming practices: “During the rainy seasons, the floods destroy our crops and cultivated lands. During the dry season, water is so scarce that it dries up all our crops.” Morshed used to cultivate rice paddy in his land during both seasons, but water scarcity during the dry season has forced him to give up paddy and switch to pulses.

As our paper highlights, Morshed, and many other people living in vulnerable conditions in lower and middle-income countries and whose lives and livelihoods depend on activities that are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather, lack formal ownership of land.

How lack of ownership blocks investment in resilience

Namal Sanjeewa in Sri Lanka has little power over the land and lives under the threat of losing it despite his family’s long history of farming it. “We have been occupying these lands for over three generations, but the state refuses to give us land permits, saying that we are living on encroached state land, “ he says. “They refuse to release irrigated water from reservoirs to our lands because they want us to vacate the area and give our lands to a private company for sugar cane plantation.”

This insecurity blocks investment in resilience. Farmers in Namal’s village want to build wells to secure a continuous water supply and shift from cultivating seasonal crops to perennial crops like mango and coconut which are more climate resilient. But they take time to generate income and they fear losing the money they invest to change their crops or farming practices, if the government evicts them.

Even when farmers have rights to their lands, the state may still retain control over use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, hybrid paddy seeds and allocation of water from irrigation channels. This lack of decision-making power increases the climate vulnerability of farmers and reduces their ability to take steps to avoid loss and damage. (For a full explanation of the term “loss and damage”, see this blog).

How climate-related losses impact women and girls

The paper highlights how existing gender inequalities are exacerbated as farmers struggle without the support they need to cope with loss and damage.  When climate impacts reduce agricultural income, this disproportionately affects women and girls.

Shaheena Akter, a casual agricultural worker from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh told us how she gets a reduced wage from the farm she works when crops fail due to drought. Women from Bangladesh said that education of girls is one of the first household expenses to be cut amidst such financial vulnerability. Young girls are being taken out of school and married off early in farming communities struggling to cope with reduced agricultural income in the face of the climate crisis. Moreover, the pressure created when a family’s income is reduced, leads to many problems including domestic violence.

Missing out on support for loss and damage

Land tenure security also determines the level of support that communities who suffer loss and damage receive. For example, land ownership is a key criterion that determines access to membership of farmer and irrigation societies in Sri Lanka, which channel government drought and flood relief to farmers. So farmers such as Namal are left out of these relief mechanisms because of lack of land ownership.

Similarly in Timor-Leste, in the aftermath of Cylone Seroja in 2021, the government’s humanitarian response swiftly provided initial support to affected communities by providing temporary shelters and assistance to repair damaged property. But access to longer term support depended largely on land ownership. The government provided assistance to landowners to leave Dili and rebuild their lives in their villages. However, those without land could not access government assistance, so they either returned to unsafe areas in Dili or remained in temporary shelters.

Such stories also show how climate loss and damage has had an impact on all aspects of our participants’ lives including livelihoods, education, increase in women’s care burden, exposure to gender-based violence and forced migration. It contributes to conflicts, reinforces colonial legacies and exacerbates existing inequalities related to income, gender and power.

Four ways land rights impact climate resilience

Our paper demonstrates the importance of land rights in climate impacts on people and in the response to loss and damage. It highlights how:

  • Lack of land ownership increases the climate vulnerability of communities and decreases their ability to recover from loss and damage.
  • Communities with secure land tenure have greater autonomy over their land and are able to make decisions to invest in their lands to make them more climate-resilient.
  • Land ownership is a key factor that determines eligibility to receive government-led support to address loss and damage.
  • Land ownership gives access to membership of farmer and irrigation societies, through which climate adaptation and mitigation assistance, such as crop insurance and drought relief, are provided.

Oxfam is calling for stronger land tenure rights to minimize the climate vulnerabilities of communities as a pragmatic and urgent way of responding to the climate crisis. Addressing climate loss and damage means addressing injustice relating to resources – and that must include land rights.


Pubudini Wickramaratne

Pubudini Wickramaratne is the Land Rights Policy Lead at Oxfam International


Rashmini de Silva

Rashmini de Silva is a researcher working on the socioeconomic intersections of climate change and gender

Read the full paper: Loss and Damage to Land: Voices from Asia