Farmers at work in Madhya Pradesh during India's monsoon season. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Rajarshi MIitra
Farmers at work in Madhya Pradesh during India's monsoon season. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Rajarshi MIitra

While the death toll has doubled since the twin quake-tsunami disaster in Indonesia, the Global Land Forum 2018 has gathered hundreds of land-rights experts, government officials, organizations, and activists together to build partnership and synergize on finding policies to protect human land rights globally. Yet instead of concrete government targets, laws, and policies to achieve such targets, discussions in plenaries and breakout sessions focused solely on vague policy ideas and the establishment of international frameworks.

What we need are not vague policy recommendations and international frameworks. What we need are concrete ideas to implement specific policies on a regional and national level.

While giving his opening remarks, the director of the International Land Coalition (ILC) secretariat, Michael Taylor, stated that this year’s GLF had the goals of:

  1. Drafting ambitious government targets that respond to the needs of marginalized communities regarding land rights;
  2. Shifting from a singular focus on land redistribution toward the broader restructuring and redistribution of political and economic rights to impoverished groups; and
  3. Ratifying and implementing coherent laws that address the rights of indigenous peoples, farmers and other small-scale land occupants.

Yet during the GLF there were a lot of noble words, soft-soaping, and organizations and organizers congratulating themselves for setting goals before actually achieving any of them.

Every time a discussion was raised on how to implement specific policies or how global guidelines can guide countries to specific policies, issues were tackled by vague ideas and inapplicable policy recommendations that solely work in some but not all nations.

In one session moderated by Global Witness, the organization introduced recommendations to prevent land grabbing, inviting the audience to discuss the feasibility, adaptability, and the lacking points of the document. The audience, consisting of experts, chief executive officers and activists, was divided into working groups to discuss and summarize their perspectives and critiques. But instead of hearing concrete examples of their countries or organizations, vague ideas that one can hear on a student-level conference, such as improving education or spreading awareness, were endorsed.

Particularly baffling was the point on education. Indeed, education might help, but rural families need to work in order to survive. There is no time or money, even for the children, to go to school or any institution to learn about land grabbing, since sustaining the family’s livelihood is more vital. Land grabbing is a faraway topic that only becomes important and concerning for them when their land is forcefully taken.

Additionally, there are many countries – as one expert of a non-governmental organization pointed out – where people in rural areas do not trust their governments or institutions. Spreading awareness, offering education, or even making rural communities work with their national institutions to help them counter land grabbing is almost an unachievable task. NGOs first need to advocate communities to build trust in institutions to make them collaborate with organizations or governments.

What all the plenaries and sessions made clear was that we are in need of an international framework, but we are more in need of finding more regional or country-specific frameworks to protect humans’ land rights. International frameworks work sufficiently as guidelines for holding organizations, private companies, and governments accountable for their actions. Yet a global framework is inapplicable to specific nations.

In countries like Vietnam or Laos, governments ban independent human-rights organizations and reject “… visits by international human-rights groups and UN human-rights experts.” When authorities discover a defender’s legally prohibited activity, governments deem those groups as a threat and label them as illegal. Such countries cannot apply an international framework – making it inapplicable. Thus it becomes crucial to implement a flexible framework on a regional or national level that can be applied to specific countries or a group of countries with similar restrictions.

Global Witness, as well as other large organizations, work worldwide with different partners. The GLF offers a platform to build bridges and connect organizations. Therefore, all present organizations and activists have the chance to start from an international level, work toward a regional framework, and then implement country-specific frameworks.

Bastian Harth has completed a Master of Arts in politics, governance and public policy at the University of Sheffield (UK) and his Bachelor of Arts in international relations at the Tokyo International University (Japan). He is currently a Blue Book Trainee at the European Commission's Single Resolution Board.