Oxfam: Land disputes escalating poverty and conflicts

Five billion hectares of common land around the world lacks legal protection. [Mike McHolm/Flickr]

Failure to protect land rights could lead to worldwide conflict, poverty and human rights violations, a report by Oxfam has warned. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Oxfam’s report, “Common Ground“, published today (2 March), showed that only 20% of common land in developing countries is currently protected from land-grabbing by governments, large companies and other influential parties, and that nearly 1,000 people have been killed during violent land disputes since 2002.

Around 2.5 billion people depend on indigenous and community land; however, five billion hectares of it remains unprotected and vulnerable to land grabs.

“More justice and less social inequality in rural areas can only be achieved through secure land rights,” said Oxfam agricultural expert Marita Wiggerthale. The catastrophic gap in property rights accounts for a great deal of disenfranchisement, poverty, human rights violations and conflicts around the world.

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Protecting and promoting land ownership by indigenous people is a crucial part of the Sustainable Development Goals and was included in the COP21 negotiations in Paris.

Land disputes have been the source of many conflicts since the 1990s, for example, the war in Darfur. In particular, women suffer as a result of the uncertainty over land ownership in developing countries, as their role in regional and national politics, as well as society, is often limited in comparison to men.

Globally, conflicts of this nature have increased, especially in Brazil, Honduras, Peru and the Philippines, with the number of deaths rising in tandem.

“No land, no life,” said Marion Aberle, an expert on the subject from German NGO Welthungerhilfe. “Social disruption, hunger and poverty are a result,” she added.

Both Oxfam and Welthungerhilfe have called upon the German government to provide more support in protecting land rights. In addition, UN guidelines adopted in 2012 on responsible land policies must be implemented.

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The report cited Mongolia as an encouraging example. Following years of state control, followed by a phase of privatisation, Mongolia now delegates the responsibility for common pastureland to community managers instead, with an emphasis on returning to traditional farm management. As a result, soil degradation has been reduced and local communities have seen their incomes rise up to 50%.

There is no comprehensive data available on the true extent of land grabs. A database run by Land Matrix documented more than 1,000 large-scale land acquisitions with a surface extent of 41.8 million hectares , an area larger than Germany.

In most cases, the land was already owned by rural communities and the indigenous population or at least occupied or used by them. African countries where land rights are the most insecure are particularly targeted companies.

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