Collective Land & Resource Rights – Another Fold in the Neo-liberal Agenda?

Remarks on the Conference on Upscaling Strategies for Securing Indigenous and Community Land & Resource Rights held in Interlaken, Switzerland.

“The lack of clarity and recognition of community land and resource rights across the developing world has become a global crisis undermining progress on social and economic development, human rights, peace, food security, environmental conservation, and the ability to confront and adapt to climate change. Ownership of roughly one-half of the rural, forest and dry land areas of the developing world is contested, directly affecting the lives and livelihoods of over two billion people. These lands, which contain the soil, water, carbon, and mineral resources that the future of all humanity depends upon, are the primary targets of rapidly expanding investments in industrial agribusiness, mining, oil and gas, and hydro-electric production. This international conference Aimed at increasing the profile and prioritization of community land rights as a global concern, catalyse new ideas and alliances, and secure commitments to take these strategies forward in coming months and years. The Conference took place on September 19-20 in Interlaken, Switzerland. While the Conference attracted great praise, some voices raised questions on particular aspects”.


From the perspective of the ICCA Consortium –which has the very topic of the conference at the heart of its mission and reason to exist – it was just wonderful to see the sheer number, variety and energy and of the participants and the pertinence of the experiences discussed.

Least adding a voice to praising chorus, however, is important to comment on one issue that is strangely subdued when not just absent from many of the initial reports and echoes from the conference.

The conference was among the first ever with the ambition to organise a “political” movement to scale up collective land and resource rights (underlining the term collective).  It was just great to see how many advocates for indigenous peoples’ rights, community-based conservation, peasant rights, women rights and the movements for the recognition of communities as legal subjects and the documentation of their collective rights and responsibilities  would coalesce around the idea that the “commons” are crucial for another world order and another future.

And yet, for a number of participants who certainly included myself, this celebration of the long and patient struggles of so many included  a strident note.  From the very beginning the conference stressed the need to include “private sector interests” in the movement to secure collective rights.   For instance, one of the only five main workshops that wove the conference arguments was dedicated to “expanding and leveraging private sectors interest in securing community land rights”  and, among the speakers in the main panels, stood out a rather arrogant “anthropologist” from Rio Tinto….

Rio Tinto?   Yes, you read well.

Why so?   Do we need the corporate private sector (we did not see the private sector of small peasant or family entrepreneurs) at the heart of the movement that could spell one of the few possible alternatives to the world as we know it and build the basis of a more sustainable and equitable future?

Some think that we do not.  But the corporate private sector has become clever.  They have realised the “social risk” (by which they mean economic risk of social nature) of not dealing with their opposition.  And they are sending towards the opposition a mixture of sweet talk, glossy brochures, PR men including “anthropologists” and agents of corruptions.  At the field level in some countries (not in all) they are also sending para-military forces, thugs and murderers, but this is another story, far from the chandeliers of conferences in Switzerland.

What is the proposal? … that we discuss the issue openly but internally to the movement for the commons; that we learn from recent history (the unconditional embrace of the corporate private sector is all but destroying the soul of many environmental NGOs).  A proposal that we learn from in-depth relevant research.  Among other works, let me single out “The politics of resource extraction” by S. Sawyer and E.T Gomez, UNRISD, 2012.   It is by examining concrete cases in which the corporate private sector has actually gotten enmeshed in “supporting collective rights” in the field that you can see how this can be thoroughly pernicious for the movement, for the people involved, and for nature.

Let us all watch out.  Let us support the conference organisers but also question some of their strategic choices.  Let us make sure that collective land and resource rights do not get co-opted in the deep folds of the neo liberal agenda.

To visit the Conference website click here


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