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Secure land tenure for local communities is key to addressing modern day challenges
Customary tenure systems are “living institutions,” researcher Mike Dwyer said at the Mekong Region Customary Tenure Workshop held in Myanmar this month. “They are capable of dealing with modern times and questions of development and conservation, rather than being simply locked in the past.”
This was a key message at the meeting, which sought to build a common understanding of customary tenure and promote its recognition in the Mekong Region. Participants included government officers, NGO workers, academics and private investors, mainly from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam, with guest speakers from India and the Philippines. The group reflected on the various ways countries and groups are pursuing recognition of customary tenure.
“The workshop opened people’s eyes to the challenges of blending traditional land governance with state land administration and economic development goals,” said Natalia Scurrah of the Mekong Region Land Governance project.
One key message agreed in the discussions is that customary tenure is vital to a diversity of communities, not just indigenous peoples or particular ethnic groups. It includes many forms of communal forest, grazing land and fisheries management critical to the livelihoods of all rural communities.
However, legal protections do not always extend to all groups. In Cambodia, for example, only 1-2 % of the population defined by the state as “indigenous” are eligible to receive communal land titles. This excludes the majority non-indigenous population from accessing equivalent legal protection for their communal forests, grazing land and fisheries.
The workshop also highlighted how secure land rights for communities can be a powerful ingredient for sustainable and inclusive economic growth.
“Equal and secure access to land, and control over land, is a prerequisite for any kind of investment, and therefore also for economic development,” noted Markus Buerli from Myanmar’s Swiss Development Cooperation office in his opening remarks.
The challenge to lawmakers is to reach consensus on how customary land rights can be incorporated into legislation that includes title-based tenure, state-managed lands, and land leases for economic development.
In Laos, for example, there are “all kinds of rights and claims to land and resources. They can be private or collective, temporary or permanent,” said Lao researcher Luck Buonmixay. “For example, if you plant a tree on customary land, that tree can be claimed as private and sold. It’s very complex.”
Speakers from India and the Philippines presented examples of how indigenous peoples and local communities have successfully advocated recognition of their land and forest rights. David Vera, Executive Director of the Philippines Association for Intercultural Development, spoke of an increasing awareness of the vital role customary tenure can play in environmental sustainability.
“Due to mass environmental destruction and climate change, there is a growing acceptance in Philippine society that traditional governance of our environment might be our last hope,” he said. “The trees remain, the flora and fauna remain because of traditional governance by indigenous peoples.”
The trend may be echoed in Vietnam. Mr. Ngo Van Hong, Director for the Center for Indigenous Knowledge Research and Development (CIRD), pointed to a number of studies demonstrating the effectiveness of community forest management. This suggests that partnerships between communities and governments may be among the best ways to conserve the environment and protect biodiversity.
Participants also described the concrete and vital roles that customary tenure plays in sustaining cultural diversity, contributing to peace-building, providing inclusive mechanisms for economic growth, and strengthening resilience to disaster risk.
Another workshop theme was the threats to customary land, most importantly land concessions and other large scale economic developments that compete with communities for land and natural resources.
An alternative to this is private investment that respects customary land rights and works in genuine partnership with communities. Helena Axelsson, of Stora Enso Laos described how her company is working with local communities in just this way.
“Investors are knocking on the door of many of these countries. It is up to the governments to decide which type of company they want to invite in,” she said.
The Mekong Region Customary Tenure Workshop was co-hosted by MRLG and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation of Myanmar.
A summary of key outcomes of the workshop is available here, and a workshop report will be uploaded to the MRLG website shortly.
Other photos by MRLG.