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Land rights

Land is life. Regardless of geographical location and socioeconomic status, each person relies on land, at least to some degree, for the provision of basic human needs such as clean water to drink, nutritious food to eat, and safe housing to shelter in.

Land rights graphic

Land is life. Regardless of geographical location and socioeconomic status, each person relies on land, at least to some degree, for the provision of basic human needs such as clean water to drink, nutritious food to eat, and safe housing to shelter in.

In many cases, the planet’s most vulnerable populations also directly rely on land in farming, hunting, gathering and carrying out other tasks for daily subsistence and in maintaining their and their families’ livelihoods and cultural identities.

Almost 75% of the world’s poor are affected directly by land degradation.

Business activities can have a wide range of impacts on people in relation to land. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “[a]n increasing number of people are forcibly evicted or displaced from their land to make way for large-scale development or business projects, such as dams, mines, oil and gas installations or ports.” What’s more, “[i]n many countries the shift to large-scale farming has also led to forced evictions, displacements and local food insecurity, which in turn has contributed to an increase in rural to urban migration and consequently further pressure on access to urban land and housing.”

Land quality is closely linked to a healthy environment and sustainable access to natural resources. As such, land degradation connected to private sector activities can have significantly negative and widespread effects on people, for instance due to higher levels of water and air pollution or lack of access to firewood and other essential energy sources.

Access to, use of and control over land directly affect people’s enjoyment of their human rights. For example, “[f]or many people, land is a source of livelihood, and is central to economic rights. Land is also often linked to peoples’ identities, and so is tied to social and cultural rights.” Moreover, “the human rights aspects of land affect a range of issues including poverty reduction and development, peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance, disaster prevention and recovery, urban and rural planning, to name but a few. Emerging global issues, such as food insecurity, climate change and rapid urbanization, have also refocused attention on how land is being used, controlled and managed by States and private actors.”

Approximately 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, including around 70 million indigenous people.

Under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), land-related human rights issues are of particular concern in the context of business impacts on indigenous populations. For instance, UNDRIP and other frameworks such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards require the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples for business activities that pose actual or potential impacts on their land and associated human rights.

As illustrated above, and depending on the specifics of the relevant corporate initiative, addressing land rights in the context of business activities may contribute to the achievement of an array of the Global Goals, including:

  • Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere[i]
  • Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture[ii]
  • Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages[iii]
  • Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls[iv]
  • Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all[v]
  • Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all[vi]
  • Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries[vii]
  • Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable[viii]
  • Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns[ix]
  • Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts[x]
  • Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development[xi]
  • Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss[xii]
  • Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels[xiii]

So, how are companies currently supporting a world in which these goals can become a reality – a world in which land-related human rights are respected across all areas of business activity?

Examples illustrated by the case studies below include:

These case studies explore each of these innovative and evolving models in more detail. Each case study captures publicly available information on the initiative, alongside experiences and opinions from various actors involved.

The summaries do not claim to give a definitive account of a specific initiative or of all perspectives on that case study; instead, they are intended to serve as illustrative examples of how action toward corporate respect for human rights can make a critical contribution to the achievement of various goals and targets under the SDGs.

Case studies on land rights

De Beers and the Snap Lake Environmental Monitoring Agency

Supporting community-based oversight bodies to address Aboriginal rights

PepsiCo's Participation in Oxfam's FAIR Company-Community Partnerships

Piloting new models to address risks to land rights in the palm oil industry

Key takeaways on land rights

Individual company action

  1. Legally binding agreements between the company, affected rights-holders, and relevant government authorities can provide clear parameters, valuable oversight mechanisms and robust accountability structures that aid in ensuring respect for land-related human rights.

  2. A willingness to participate in new multi-stakeholder models can complement existing initiatives, address important gaps in current implementation efforts and place a company at the forefront of innovative efforts.

  3. Working hand-in-hand with community representatives in formalized ways can bridge cultural and other contextual gaps when it comes to local engagement and relationship building around sensitive issues such as land rights.

  4. Affected stakeholders may require support in order to effectively and meaningfully engage in consultation processes that are required or otherwise necessary to address land-related risks and impacts. Depending on context, such support might be in the form of financial resources, formal employment or expert guidance, and it may come from business where there is openness from stakeholders.

  5. Prioritizing meaningful stakeholder engagement early and often can assist a company in avoiding any escalation of land-related conflicts or other challenges throughout the lifespan of a project. This may include early land tenure diagnoses to enhance the company’s understanding of land rights in the project area before entering into easements or purchases.
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