New study: clear land rights in developing world could avoid costly disputes

Land rights disputes between private land investors and indigenous peoples can delay projects and increase company costs. The Tenure Facility aims to cut down on disputes by strengthening the legal ownership of indigenous lands.

Andre Penner/AP/File
A boy jumps into a river in Paragominas, Brazil, in the northern state Para. Indigenous lands in Para, a national reserve, were decreed under federal protection in 2017 while other areas were opened to mining. Clear indigenous land rights help companies avoid costly land disputes.

More than half of land rights conflicts in the developing world have not been resolved, pitting companies, governments, and businesses against indigenous communities, researchers said on Tuesday.

The most common cause of these often violent and sometimes deadly disputes is the displacement of indigenous and local people from land they have lived on for generations but for which they do not hold legal title.

The research by TMP Systems and the Rights and Resources Initiative found that approximately 60 percent of nearly 300 land conflicts since 2001 have not been resolved, but in Southeast Asia that number rose to almost 90 percent.

More than 65 percent of such conflicts in Southeast Asia delayed business operations and 71 percent resulted in lawsuits, while almost three quarters have lasted more than six years, the researchers found.

"Many investors in land in Southeast Asia have become embroiled in intractable disputes because they did not recognize the legitimacy and importance of customary tenure rights," said research lead author Ben Bowie, a partner at TMP Systems, a consultancy based in Britain.

Research has shown conflicts over land can increase a company's operating costs by as much as 29 times and can even result in businesses abandoning operations.

The study examined 51 conflicts that started after 2001 as companies sought to develop indigenous and communal land for agriculture, logging, tourism, and energy projects in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

Over three quarters of such conflicts in Southeast Asia started before development operations began, which typically reveals a lack of faith by the affected people that companies and governments will respect their rights, the study said. This compares to 56 percent in Africa.

Andy White, co-ordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network working to advance land rights, said companies have an important role to play in avoiding conflict over land.

"Private land investors that recognize the risk of insecure land rights and work with indigenous people and communities can set an example for other businesses," he told reporters.

Mr. White said the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, launched at a conference in Stockholm on Tuesday, will help local people to take advantage of existing laws and policies to establish their rights over land.

The Tenure Facility, funded by the governments of Sweden and Norway and the Ford Foundation, is the first initiative to put indigenous people and local communities at the helm of such efforts, White said.

Clear legal ownership and demarcation of indigenous land will in turn help companies to respect land rights, he added.

This story was reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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