Land Rights and Governance

by Sally Holt, 30/04/2013
Coming in to land at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport, the rocky sandy-brown landscape stretches out as far as the eye can see. I am here for an awareness-raising Workshop organised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to help country representatives in the region to identify ways to improve governance of tenure and implement the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.
These first impressions do not provide much evidence of fertile agricultural land here in Amman, but the route from airport to city centre is lined with polytunnels which I later learn are used for the cultivation of vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumber, squash, and okra. These commercial enterprises are interspersed with small herds of camels, goats and sheep roaming the landscape – evidence of the small-scale livestock husbandry which also characterises this peri-urban landscape, along with the occasional walled olive grove or orchard. The amount of modern construction going on is quite striking and includes some ostentatious buildings – many of which seem to be hotels or the headquarters of foreign companies. The shiny new airport terminal itself – which apparently only opened a couple of weeks ago –is part of Jordan’s bid to continue to attract increasing numbers of visitors and foreign investors to the country. All of this provides an illustration of the competing interests for the use of land that Jordan, like every other country, has to try and balance in the best interests of its whole population. This is the crux of the matter we will be discussing at the Workshop over the next few days.
Next morning I head off to the upmarket Landmark Hotel where the Workshop is taking place. Our surroundings are in stark contrast to the subject of the meeting, which places particular attention on the situation of the poorest and marginalised in society when it comes to responsible tenure, livelihoods and food security. Participants include a mixture of government and civil society (CS) reps hailing from Bahrain, Iran, Oman, Syria, UAE and Yemen – with a particularly good representation from Jordan as the host country. Regrettably there is no one from the private sector despite the important role they play when it comes to tenure issues. There is some confusion about why participants from Palestine will be attending the North African workshop to take place in Morocco in June rather than this one. Something to do with FAO regional divisional organisation we understand. There is nevertheless one participant from Palestine here representing the Palestine’s Farmers Union.
Initial presentations introduce the content of the Voluntary Guidelines (VGs) to those who are less familiar. While some in the audience have been part of the process of their development from the off, having attended a Workshop in Jordan 3 years previously and actively contributed in drafting sessions since, others are relatively new to them.
The VGs are welcomed by all as providing a principled framework within which to address tenure issues in each country. The fact that these guidelines have been negotiated (apparently quite fiercely on certain points) and agreed by governments gives them greater currency as a tool of advocacy. It is stressed by the FAO that the VGs are basically a policy document providing a comprehensive overview of the issues. They are not intended to provide detailed practical guidance on specific options for implementation, but the FAO is also producing supplementary technical guides on specific issues – one of which (on gender) is already available on their website: An e-learning course is also being developed – with UEL contributing a module on addressing tenure disputes and conflicts.
Talking of conflict, in the course of discussions the Palestinian CS rep raises a question about how the VGs can be implemented in situations of occupation or protracted conflict where there is no legitimate authority to appeal to and people are losing access to their lands and related resources on a continuing basis. The pragmatic answer to this is that, of course, the VGs cannot solve macro level political conflicts. What they can do is inform processes of negotiation and mediation. It is therefore crucial that those involved in such processes are aware of the guidance the VGs provide. This is equally true in processes of transition and in national dialogue processes such as the one currently underway in Yemen. More broadly, from a conflict perspective, the VGs can help to address the underlying and root causes of tensions and conflict within societies and so prevent the (re)emergence of violence. Aside from specific guidance on dispute resolution, other sections (e.g. on improving security of tenure or regulating markets so that some groups are not unfairly disadvantaged) also have a role in addressing grievances and fears that can underlie conflict. It therefore follows that national processes of reviewing existing tenure systems and institutions as the basis of potential reform should incorporate a conflict perspective. It is also worth mentioning that even situations of protracted conflict small steps can be taken. For example, registering claims as people are forced from their lands, as happened in Colombia, provides a record for when the situation shifts and return and restitution becomes a possibility. Small comfort perhaps for Palestinian farmers, but nevertheless something practical that can be done.
On the second day we break into three working groups on land, forests and fisheries respectively. This division reflects FAO’s institutional focus and structure. Some civil society reps are concerned that this categorisation has contributed to the (in their view) insufficient attention in the VGs to rangelands, which can encompass all three elements and face their own set of issues. Certainly, tensions over ownership, use and management of rangelands is emphasised as one of main – if not the – key issue in Iran (and this is also the case in a number of Central Asian states) where lands have been nationalised without recognition for the customary and tribal rights. States’ failure to recognise the benefits of traditional methods of use and management which tend to work in harmony with nature and are therefore sustainable and environmentally friendly are also noted. More worryingly still, these lands are now being given over by governments to private ownership so creating more competing ownership claims – a recipe for tensions and conflict. Perhaps counter-intuitively one of the positive factors identified by participants in relation to rangelands is the abject failure of policies to deal with this issue to date. This is seen as an entry point now for advocating reform according to the principles set out in the VGs. A new approach is clearly needed.
As we get down to serious work in our groups we are guided by a series of questions. Not only should we review the main issues of concern in each country and identify common threads and themes, but we should try and come up with recommendations for how to address them as part of a strategic plan. In the land group, country reps identify key challenges to include: problems of legal recognition of rights, weak titling and registration systems, multiple and conflicting claims to land and resources and lack of effective mechanisms to deal with them. Complexities in the law concerning allocation of public, private and customary lands and the need for clarification are highlighted as particularly crucial. In some cases e.g. Oman while a regulatory framework is in place the problem lies with implementation where land is used for purposes other than agriculture or left it lie fallow. Another issue generally across the region is access to water of sufficient quantity and quality. Water is also a source of trans-boundary tensions here in Jordan. The adverse effects of regional and international trade agreements on the production of crops for domestic markets is also highlighted as an important issue affecting food security. For example, in Jordan, wheat production is reportedly down to a record all-time low of 6%, with imports coming from Syria, Russia and the USA. While the issue was not really discussed in our group it is worth noting that Middle East and Gulf states seeking food security for their rapidly growing populations are now outsourcing agriculture by buying or leasing land in Africa and Asia, often via private companies. Obviously this has significant knock-on effects in those continents where competition for land is already fierce.
In looking for solutions, participants discuss how Islamic law can provide some useful models for addressing some of these difficult issues. It is a shame that UEL’s Siraj Sait is not here to share his expertise in this area, as well as on gender. He could not make it to this workshop, but will be attending the one in Morocco instead.
In the spirit of the principles laid out in the VGs, everyone in our group agrees that process is all-important in addressing land tenure (and indeed many other policy) issues and that genuine participation is key. We come up with a plan involving the creation of a multi-stakeholder platform in each country, which will then undertake activities in relation to:
(1) Dissemination and awareness-raising about the VGs among a wider audience, including educational initiatives such as the production of targeted materials for different sectors (policy-makers, farmers, land administrators, technicians, etc.); and
(2) Review and possible reform of relevant law, policy and practice.
We also incorporate an element of regional cooperation, stressing the potential complementarity and mutual support that countries can provide for one another. All this is very ambitious and will require political will – not to mention funding – but we have decided to think big, even if the first steps may be small.
Sadly, I have to head back to the airport and miss the final presentations of the other groups, but I’ll be looking out for the meeting report which will also be posted on FAO’s website.
I am also missing out on a trip to the Dead Sea – famous for its restorative powers and a popular tourist destination – which is apparently shrinking at a record rate. This is attributed partly to increased usage for agricultural and industrial purposes of the water that used to flow into the sea, especially from the Jordan River. This is problematic from both an environmental and conflict perspective. Indeed, some commentators are predicting that the fragile political situation in the Middle East will only be made worse by the increasingly intense water shortages in the region.
On the way back to the airport we pass the Amman Waves Aqua Park Resort and I can’t help wondering how this fits into Amman’s plan for sustainable use of resources. I guess the leisure and tourism industries are important players in that careful balancing act in the competition for precious natural resources.
Back in London, it has finally stopped raining and it seems like spring has finally arrived. How long until the first hose-pipe ban is announced?


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