The battle over land has not ended
Control over land has been central to conflicts - including colonialism - in human history, and as the climate crisis intensifies, land is in the focus once again, as Ruchika Singh of WRI explains
Water, land, and sky… and a JCB [image by: Srikanth]
In the dramatic court scenes in black and white Hindi movies, there would almost always be a scene where the lawyer would declaim, “Milord, a man commits a crime for one of three reasons: zan, zar, ya zameen (women, wealth, or land)…” In this - quite often - the role of zameen, of land, is the most important. The saying is Persian, although a form of it also exists in Punjabi, testifying to the long history of land at the centre of disputes in our region and beyond. In fact, even today the vast majority of court cases revolve around property disputes.
Land has been central to human civilisation for thousands of years, and conflicts over it. This is – unsurprisingly – also at the centre of the climate crisis. As Ruchika Singh explains in our interview this fortnight, the correct management of land will have a multiple impact on how we manage India’s challenges, whether we are able to build a successful response that make the country more resilient to the coming problems, or not.
There is a danger of conflating wealth and power with expertise. It is striking that the richest and most industrialised countries have largely managed their land badly, when it comes to climate change. In fact the best management of land has been by indigenous communities across the world
There is a view that we should let “the experts” handle the issues when it comes to land. While expertise matters, we should also try and understand who really has that expertise. There is a danger of conflating wealth and power with expertise. It is striking that the richest and most industrialised countries have largely managed their land badly when it comes to climate change. In fact the best management of land has been by indigenous communities across the world – communities that are often the most marginalised, with the weakest legal power over managing their own lands. This is expertise, but unfortunately, this expertise is often passed over by the ‘expertise’ of large corporations and states. Without incorporating how indigenous communities have looked at land – and how that has resulted in far better management of land for the age of climate change – we run the risk of letting a partial expertise define our response.
This is part and parcel of India’s challenges in managing its development. As Mihir Sharma wrote in his book “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy”, one of the challenges of the Indian government over the time of liberalising the economy was a lack of funds for infrastructure. In a bargain with private industry, the government largely grated them large tracts of land in the understanding that the corporations would then build the infrastructure necessary for the development of the country. In effect, though, what happened was that large companies basically turned these grants into land banks, using real estate to create money for themselves, and then the global economic crisis hit in 2008, wiping out many investments, and showing these schemes to be hollow.
The Indian citizen, in effect, paid for large corporations to take over land from the poorest of its inhabitants, with no little positive outcome for the country.
The government then had to bail out big companies because of bad debt accrued, and much of the necessary infrastructure remained unbuilt. The Indian citizen, in effect, paid for large corporations to take over land from the poorest of its inhabitants, with no little positive outcome for the country.
This flawed policy seems to be being followed even now, with significant threats to the environmental security of India. In a stunning, in-depth, story on how the government has eased the rules for large corporations to get away with breaking the rules in sensitive environmental regions like coastal zones, Akshay Deshmane illustrates how this policy is playing out in real life.
In a sense much of this was preceded in India’s independence movement. British colonial law – unlike Spanish law – held that land that had not been recognised by European law was owned by nobody. This allowed them to steal the land from people in whole continents – such as Australia and North America, and also had a massive impact on how they dealt with indigenous communities in India and other colonised states. The practice of relegating whole peoples as “criminal tribes” was part and parcel of the largest theft of land in world history. This was one of the reasons land reforms was central to the Indian independence movement.
That effort never truly managed to bear fruit, as large amounts of land were hidden through benaami title, and that problem continues to plague us, just as despite their decriminalisation, the Adivasi communities bear the largest brunt of displacement in the name of “development” as devised by experts who exclude them from their calculations. We used to call this problem the “White Man’s Burden”, while it may not be exclusively the White Man’s any longer, the burden is still being borne by most of our poorest and most marginalised.
Ruchika Singh is the Director of Sustainable Landscapes and Restoration Program at World Resources Institute India (WRI India). She provides strategic leadership, research guidance and develops institutional partnerships to mobilise action, support more robust monitoring and develop pathways to transition towards sustainable food and land use systems at WRI India. She brings two decades of extensive experience spread across grassroots level participatory programme implementation to policy research, strategy development and project management. Prior to working with WRI India, Ruchika has worked with World Bank, TERI School of Advanced Studies, The Energy and Resources Institute, Development and Research Services, and Foundation for Ecological Security. Ruchika holds a PhD in Development Studies (magna cum laude) from the Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn. She also holds a double Masters in Politics from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Masters in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague part of the Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Q. Why is land management important to dealing with climate issues?
We live in a world that needs to prepare for 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius warming of the planet. India faces extreme land-use pressure due to decreasing land productivity and high population density and growth. The pace of land degradation continues to accelerate with almost 50% of soil facing varying degree of degradation and there is an urgent need to improve soil health. Any conversation on sustainable land management needs to consider issues around tenure, resource rights which are complex - dealing with structural and intersectional dimensions. However, this is a critical subject of discussion in context of climate issues: as land can sync one-third of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions and ensure food security.
Sustainable land management is an integral part of the solution while dealing with the climate crisis, but not an easy one. For instance, sustainable land management is critical for mitigating climate risks and building resilience for communities dependent on the land for sustenance, nutritional security, and biodiversity recovery. Sustainable land management is also essential for our terrestrial ecosystem to thrive – be it grasslands, agricultural lands, or forests, and for the ecosystems services that can flow. The 2019 IPCC report on land emphasized the centrality of sustainable land management, the way we produce food and manage land to reduce emissions, and our biodiversity to thrive. We know that sustainable management of land and ecosystem restoration can provide a win-win solution for climate, improve livelihoods and developmental benefits. Hence, it needs more attention.
Also, with several industries undergoing deep decarbonization, part of the loss of jobs and livelihoods from these sectors could be absorbed by the land sector through more sustainable and innovative businesses that thrive on restoring farms and forests.
Q. What are some of the key things India has done, good or bad, on land that are worth looking at?
India has stellar policies, missions, and legislation supporting sustainable land management. For instance, by recognizing forest rights for local forest-dependent communities (e.g., Forest Rights Act 2006), building sustainability within the farming practices (National mission on sustainable agriculture). Despite these progressive policies and being a climate leader in our global commitments and enabling policies. The governance and implementation challenges restrict realizing the full benefits that could be unlocked from implementing progressive policies/schemes/legislation. We have a lot to learn from our past experiences on barriers to implementation, governance mechanisms that work, and identifying key levers to develop strategies with local people as stewards of land steering the process. For instance, there is an urgent need to design public incentives that reward farmers and repurpose some of the perverse agricultural incentives towards land restoration. This would also reduce the agriculture sectors’ impact on climate and enable building a sustainable future for rural communities.
Q. If land is so important, why did it not really figure in the COP26 discussions?
The UK presidency prioritized nature-based solutions as a vital conversation at CoP26. The Glasgow climate pact also features protecting, conserving, and restoring nature. There is a Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation, with over 140 countries signing up for it. However, India is not one of the signatories and raised some concerns on trade issues in the final text. While the need at the COP26 was to have a greater discussion on adaptation issues, more space for diversity of voices especially indigenous/tribal communities, farmers, and more substantial commitments for climate finance. The CoP26 at least brought to fore food and land use issues. Policy action agenda for transition to sustainable food and agriculture also featured in the CoP26 discussion. This at least provides an opportunity to discuss the transition on food and land use systems that are needed globally and in India.
Q. How did you get involved in focussing on this issue?
Two things that have motivated and troubled me early on are how deeply patriarchal and unjust our social systems are. And secondly, environmental issues in India are really about inequity and access to resources that impact local communities. These two driving factors took me down a career and research path in the development sector where interdisciplinary issues around commons, water, natural resource management, land restoration, and food intrigued me. And I am looking at the challenges we face from a solutions lens. These driving factors also influenced my research and I am keen to look at how intersectional dimensions of caste, class, gender, for instance, impact decisions around landscape restoration. Land ownership in India is concentrated in hands of men, while women own only 13% of operational land holdings. Although they are a dominant part of the agricultural labour force and there is increasingly feminisation of agriculture. Any strategies on land, thus needs to consider these complexities.
Q. What is the one big issue (or more) on this topic that you wish we saw more discussion on, and why?
The IPCC report this summer indicated that its code red for humanity. We have a climate crisis, which is an issue of climate justice. Any conservation strategy needs to consider tenure and resources rights issues, especially impact on women and marginalized groups who will be disproportionately impacted from climate risks. These groups have inequitable access to information, lack of land rights, and unequal access to decision-making processes and strategies to mitigate climate risks need to consider this. Additionally, there is an urgent need to develop strategies that realize sustenance on land remunerative for local communities dependent on it and spark a new land-based restoration economy.
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