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Committee on World Food Security endorses voluntary guidelines on land tenure rights

The United Nations Committee on World Food Security endorsed a set of voluntary guidelines on land tenure rights Thursday that includes provisions addressing two of the most difficult issues in developing countries today: land rights for women and the purchase and leasing of land by outside interests.

The adoption of the guidelines was praised by the U.S. Mission to the U.N. food agencies in Rome and by civil society groups.
Karen Johnson

Karen Johnson
“We are excited that the voluntary guidelines, which everyone at CFS worked on with dedication and conviction, have met with approval,” Karen Johnson, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Mission in Rome said in a news release.

“We are confident that, if consulted, these guidelines will greatly advance land rights, especially among small-holder farmers, allowing them to improve their food availability and economic status.”

Gregory Myers, a U.S. Agency for International Development officer, chaired the negotiations, which involved 98 countries and included participation by nongovernmental groups, civil society organizations, international agencies, farmers’ associations, private-sector representatives and research institutions from 2009 to 2011.

The co-chair was Elizabeth Kvitashvili, a USAID officer who is the humanitarian affairs attaché at the U.S. Mission in Rome.

The negotiations took place while Ertharin Cousin was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. agencies. Cousin is now executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, one of the Rome-based agencies.

Johnson noted that the guidelines “represent a broader endorsement” of issues on which USAID and the Millenium Challenge Corporation have been working for many years.

“Women, in particular, face major obstacles in accessing and obtaining rights to land,” Johnson said. “In many instances, a woman’s right to land comes through marriage and can be lost if her spouse dies. Where implemented, the voluntary guidelines will bring clarity of tenure rights for all people and will especially impact the lives of women.”
Gregory Myers

Gregory Myers
Myers said, “The next important step is to help countries implement appropriate provisions of the guidelines. Multilateral and bilateral organizations are currently considering ways in which this assistance might be provided.”

Through its “Feed the Future” program, USAID has put a great emphasis on helping rural African women and refers to them as women farmers, but the effectiveness of that aid is limited because in many African countries women do not either legally or in practice have the right to own land or inherit.

The guidelines say that “states should remove and prohibit all forms of discrimination related to tenure rights.” An explanatory note issued by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said the provision means that women and men “should have equal tenure rights, including the rights to inherit and to bequeath tenure rights.”

The guidelines also cover land transfers, particularly large ones, including those to international corporations. The guidelines say that states, meaning national governments, have a responsibility “to ensure that rights are respected by business enterprises.”

The explanatory note said that means, “Where transnational corporations are involved, their home states have roles to play in assisting those corporations and the hosts states to ensure that businesses are not involved in the abuse of human rights and legitimate tenure rights.”

Ángel Strapazzón, of Movimiento Campesino Indígena-Vía Campesina Argentina, spoke on behalf of civil society organizations involved in the guidelines process.

“We commend the process that was adopted for developing the guidelines, which provided the opportunity for civil society and representatives of small-scale food producers to participate at all stages, to draw attention to the real life issues and make concrete proposals,” she said.

“We welcome the guidelines, but with awareness that they fall short in some areas that are key to the livelihoods of small-scale food producers. Despite this, we call on governments and intergovernmental agencies to implement them and urgently improve governance of tenure for food security.”
Luc Maene

Luc Maene
Luc Maene, chairman of the International Agri-Food Network, representing the private sector, noted that land tenure is fundamental to food security, “and it is fitting that the newly-reformed Committee on Food Security leads this process.”

“The guidelines set out important key elements to make land tenure function,” Maene said.

“In many places, land tenure systems are effectively non-existent,” he said. “To us in the private sector and to our farmer partners, it is important that there should be effective local administration of land registries without corruption. Fair, transparent rules benefit everyone ensuring women get equal access to land and furthering responsible investment throughout the agri-food chain.”

The guidelines were developed under an FAO-led process between 2009 and 2011, FAO said, noting that government officials, civil society organizations, private sector representatives and academics identified and assessed issues and actions to be included.

Some 1,000 people from more than 130 countries participated in 15 consultations held all over the world, FAO said, and an early draft was reviewed through a global electronic conference.
José Graziano da Silva

José Graziano da Silva
“Giving poor and vulnerable people secure and equitable rights to access land and other natural resources is a key condition in the fight against hunger and poverty,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

“It is a historic breakthrough that countries have agreed on these first-ever global land tenure guidelines,” he said. “We now have a shared vision. It's a starting point that will help improve the often dire situation of the hungry and poor.”

FAO will develop technical handbooks to help countries adopt the guidelines and also provide further help to some countries, Graziano da Silva said.

Yaya Olaniran, chairman of the CFS, acknowledged that the changes won’t happen overnight.

“But we also know, as a result of the extensive consultations by FAO and the CFS-led negotiation process, that there is a lot of buy-in and support for the guidelines,” Olaniran said. “The CFS endorsement lends them legitimacy and strength, and all the countries involved are ready to take them on board.”