Land and natural resources are central to the livelihoods and cultures of local communities and indigenous peoples around the world, and secure rights to them provide a foundation for poverty reduction, increased food security, gender equality, cultural survival and environmental sustainability. However, especially under the conditions of widespread tenure insecurity that exist in many developing countries, development interventions can inadvertently cause rural communities to lose rights to lands and resources, triggering a range of negative social impacts. These may include loss of livelihoods, increased food insecurity, threats to the cultural survival and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, disproportionate harms to women and girls, and loss of access to water or benefits from other ecosystem services.
This brief highlights issues of rural land tenure-related social impacts and their importance and relevance to the work of USAID. Taking account of these social impacts is essential to ensure that projects do not inadvertently cause harm, undermine USAID’s development objectives, contravene existing policy commitments, or erode public support for USAID operations.
Decades of work on social impacts have generated a foundation of principles, standards and practical measures to prevent and address social impacts of development projects, including impacts related to land and resource tenure. Compulsory displacement and resettlement has been a central focus of the social safeguard systems of international development institutions, which emphasize avoiding displacement as much as possible. The close ties of indigenous peoples to their traditional territories mean that they are highly vulnerable to impacts affecting their lands and resources; accordingly, obligations to respect and protect rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories, and resources are a focus of international indigenous rights frameworks. Women’s land rights require specific attention due to differences in men’s and women’s resource management roles, and the differentiated impacts of development interventions on them. The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) provide an overarching framework emphasizing the need to recognize and respect all legitimate tenure right holders and their rights, and to safeguard against tenure-related social impacts.
Concrete measures distilled from experience to safeguard against potential adverse social impacts of development interventions include to:
- Define and communicate safeguard standards
- Assess social impacts as part of project design
- Ensure effective community engagement and participation in decision-making, including securing FPIC where actions may affect indigenous peoples
- Develop dedicated plans to address social impacts
- Proactively strengthen land tenure and resource governance
- Monitor social impacts as part of project interventions and adapt accordingly
- Establish accessible and effective grievance mechanisms
These elements constitute minimum good practices that should be observed across all types of development projects. As such, they may support but do not take the place of broader programming dedicated to achieving tenure security, indigenous rights, women’s empowerment, and community livelihoods objectives.
Secure land and resource tenure are essential foundations for the well-being of rural peoples, and for their economic and social development. Increasingly, global and national policies have recognized that attention to local land and resource tenure is necessary to achieve key goals related to poverty reduction, governance, women’s empowerment, ecosystem management and climate change. However, especially where tenure is insecure, development interventions can inadvertently cause rural communities to lose rights to lands and resources, triggering a range of negative social impacts. These tenure-related social impacts, in turn, can undermine the development intervention’s original objectives, and reduce public support for development institutions and activities.
This brief highlights issues of rural land tenure-related social impacts and their importance and relevance to the work of USAID. Land tenure refers to the relationship, whether legally or customarily defined, among people – as individuals or groups – with respect to land (FAO 2002). The social impacts of development, in turn, may be defined as intended or unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned development interventions (Vancley et al. 2015). In light of the centrality of secure tenure to rural development, this brief focuses in particular on understanding and addressing potential negative social impacts related to land and resource tenure. While most directly associated with infrastructure projects such as dams, other energy infrastructure and roads, or with the extractive industry, a range of other types of development policies, programs and projects can create risks of negative social impacts related to tenure.
The following section of this brief provides background information on the importance of secure tenure for sustainable development, and describes the conditions of tenure insecurity in many rural areas of developing countries around the world. It also introduces the types of projects that risk generating tenure-related social impacts, and relevant USAID priorities and commitments that compel attention to them. Subsequent sections of this brief explore key standards and safeguards that have been developed over time to address tenure-related social impacts, with a particular focus on compulsory displacement and resettlement, indigenous peoples and women’s land rights. The final section provides information and recommendations on practical steps to understand and address these social impacts in the planning, implementation and monitoring of development initiatives.
Importance of Secure Tenure for Sustainable Rural Development
Land and natural resources are primary livelihood and development assets for rural peoples, and secure rights to these key assets provide a foundation for poverty reduction, increased food security, gender equality, cultural survival and environmental sustainability. Since most rural communities depend on natural resources for both subsistence and income – from agriculture, livestock, forestry and fishing – access to and control of land and resources is essential for their livelihoods. Secure land rights also increase incentives for communities and smallholders to invest in enhancing the productivity of their lands, which contributes, in turn, to increased food security and incomes (Roth and McCarthy 2013, Deininger 2003).
Secure land and resource rights are particularly important for vulnerable groups. For example, lands, territories and resources are intrinsically linked to the cultures and ways of life of indigenous peoples, and secure tenure rights provide a necessary foundation for them to maintain their livelihoods and cultures (IASG 2014, Feiring 2013). Women’s tenure security contributes directly to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and also has broader positive impacts on the well-being of families. Tenure rights have been found to be associated with increased “participation in household decision-making, household income, reductions in domestic violence… and increased expenditure on food & education for children” (Giovarelli et al. 2013).
With regard to ecosystem conservation, a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates the links between secure community tenure and conservation, as land rights provide communities with the legal protections and incentives they need to manage resources for the long term (Aggarwal and Freudenberger 2013). A comprehensive review of relevant literature on forests undertaken in 2014 found that where communities have legal recognition of their rights to forests and government support – such as for registration, enforcement of rights, and technical assistance for community forest management – deforestation rates within indigenous and community forests are significantly lower than in forests outside these areas (Stevens et al. 2014). These lower rates of deforestation are significant for efforts to combat climate change; the 15.5 percent of global forest area to which communities have government-recognized rights contain over 37.7 billion tons of carbon, or the equivalent of 29 times the annual emissions from all passenger vehicles in the world (ibid).
Increased recognition of the contributions of tenure security to this wide range of development goals has resulted in a growing international policy consensus on the importance of securing land and resource rights. The post-2015 development agenda adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 includes targets on land to achieve Sustainable Development Goals on poverty, food security and gender equality (UNGA 2015). The VGGT, unanimously endorsed by the members of the UN Committee on World Food Security (including the U.S.) in 2012, highlight the need to recognize and respect all legitimate tenure claims, including those derived from custom (FAO 2012). Rights of indigenous peoples to lands, territories, and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or use are recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights on Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and in International Labor Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.
Prevailing Tenure Insecurity and Pressures
The increasing awareness and policy commitment to securing land tenure is vital, because in rural areas of many low-income countries tenure remains unclear, overlapping and insecure. By one estimate, at least one billion of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and lack secure rights to the land they use for their subsistence (Prosterman et al. 2009). Many of these people hold land and resource rights informally through customary, community-based tenure systems, which are estimated to extend across large areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America and to affect up to 2 billion people (Alden Wily 2011).
One significant issue affecting tenure security in rural areas is the lack of formal, legal recognition of community-based tenure rights. This situation stems from historical processes in which governments (often colonial governments) claimed, as state land, areas that were traditionally owned and governed by indigenous peoples and local communities. Where local communities have maintained attachments to these ancestral lands, there are often overlapping systems of statutory tenure (codified in state law) and customary tenure (Freudenberger 2013; Springer and Campese 2008). Over time, with growing awareness of customary rights and the benefits of secure local land tenure, national governments have legally recognized some customary rights, or devolved land and resource rights to communities to meet conservation, sustainable use and/or livelihoods objectives. However, the gap in recognition between the area of land that is customarily held by indigenous peoples and local communities and the area of land that is formally recognized as community-owned or managed under statutory laws remains significant in many countries (RRI 2015). Analysis of forest tenure trends also indicates that the pace of recognition slowed in the period 2008-2013 as compared with 2002-2008 (RRI 2014a). The lack of legal recognition renders communities’ land rights largely invisible, increases the vulnerability of their lands to expropriation, and constrains their incentives to make long-term investments in productive capacities and ecosystems.
Even where land rights are recognized under statutory law, they may not be implemented, enforced or respected in practice. In some countries, laws have been enacted to allow for recognition of land rights, but no land has yet been registered under them (RRI 2015). In other cases, land is demarcated and registered, but even these land rights are not respected in practice due to competing interests, such as from private sector investments, low government capacity, and/or lack of coordination across land and other relevant ministries.
This is a special problem for women who, despite playing significant roles in agriculture and in the provision of household nutrition across rural areas of developing countries, tend to have weaker tenure rights than men (FAO 2011). Women and female-headed households are far less likely to own or control land in developing countries, and women’s landholdings are generally smaller and of lower value than those held by men (USAID Gender Policy; World Bank 2012). Addressing women’s unequal land and resource rights reflects both limitations in legal recognition, and cultural constraints on the participation of women in ownership and land use decisions.
Compounding these prevailing patterns of tenure insecurity is the strong pressure on land in rural areas of many developing countries. Growing global demand for agricultural commodities and natural resources has led governments to allocate land to large-scale industrial concessions, despite the existence of competing claims to the land from smallholders and communities (Roth 2013). While difficulties in accessing information on concessions mean that estimates are uncertain, one study by the International Land Coalition identified approximately 203 million hectares in large-scale land acquisitions between 2000 and 2011 (Anseeuw et al. 2012). Moreover, much of the interest from investors has targeted countries where local tenure rights are insecure (Deininger et al. 2011). Other pressures on land include urban expansion and associated infrastructure development, demands for biofuels, and expansion of protected area systems, including for climate mitigation (Roth 2013). While all landholders face risks due to these pressures, landholders with insecure tenure rights face considerably higher risks of losing their lands and livelihoods.
Social Impacts and USAID Priorities
In this context of tenure insecurity and global pressures on land, several types of development projects carry significant risks of generating negative social impacts on rural communities. Infrastructure and energy projects often rely on states’ powers of eminent domain to acquire land to which local people have customary or statutory rights. Similarly, agribusiness investments that involve land acquisitions may allocate to private investors land that is held by communities under customary tenure. Establishment of protected areas and species conservation measures may physically displace communities or restrict access to lands and natural resources that are vital to indigenous and community livelihoods and cultures. Concerns regarding land acquisition or restrictions on access and use to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation have prompted the development of safeguards for REDD+ under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Somerville 2013; Alcorn 2011). As USAID has built partnerships with private sector actors through initiatives such as Feed the Future, Power Africa and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, social impacts associated with private sector investments have also become increasingly relevant for USAID (Boudreaux and Neyman 2015).
Disruption to local land tenure and resource governance systems is associated with a range of significant social impacts. While not comprehensive, these may include:
- Loss of livelihoods and employment
- Food insecurity
- Threats to the cultural survival and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples
- Disproportionate harms to women and girls
- Loss of biodiversity, particularly species important for community livelihoods and/or cultures
- Loss of access to water or benefits from other ecosystem services
- Social marginalization and disarticulation
- Increased morbidity and mortality
Taking account of these tenure-related social impacts is essential in order for USAID to ensure that projects do not inadvertently undermine USAID’s mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient communities. Where land and resource tenure social impacts are not addressed, they risk causing harm to local people and vulnerable groups. Adverse social impacts also risk undermining USAID’s social license to operate and its public support. Responsibly and effectively addressing potential social impacts is therefore an integral part of USAID’s aims to “advance the economic, political, social, and environmental well-being of the world’s most vulnerable people” (USAID Mission).
While USAID does not have an overarching social safeguards policy, the Agency has established commitments to domestic and international frameworks that imply obligations to address social impacts. The U.S. 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, for example, highlights U.S. commitments to “democracy, human rights and accountable governance” and to the “empowerment and inclusion of vulnerable populations” including indigenous peoples (US 2015). The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, Executive Order 13107 on Implementation of Human Rights Treaties, and U.S. Commitment to Advancing Human Rights in the UN System Section emphasize the importance of providing U.S. support in ways that are consistent with and further international human rights. USAID’s policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment establishes the accountability of all staff, particularly senior managers and directors, to these goals (USAID 2012). In stating U.S. support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the U.S. has “committed to serving as a model in the international community in promoting and protecting the collective rights of indigenous peoples as well as human rights of all individuals” (Announcement of U.S. support for UNDRIP, Dec 2010). All OECD members, including the U.S., endorsed the 1992 Guidelines for Aid Agencies on Involuntary Displacement and Resettlement in Development Projects (OECD 1992).
In addition to establishing commitments, existing frameworks set standards and provide practical guidance for addressing land-related social impacts, as discussed further in the following sections.
Recommendations and Conclusions
Efforts over many years have generated considerable knowledge regarding effective practices to safeguard against potential adverse social impacts of development interventions. There has also been an evolution in thinking about social impacts over time, from a narrower focus on avoiding negative outcomes to a more positive orientation towards enhancing the overall benefits of projects to affected communities (Vancley 2015).
The following points highlight key elements for effective management of the social impacts of development projects, elements that typically form parts of an integrated social safeguards system. They are consistent with but do not replace the more detailed treatment of specific issues in USAID policies and guidelines such as on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment, Indigenous Peoples and Compulsory Displacement and Resettlement. It is important to note that these are minimum good practices that should be observed across all types of development projects. As such, they may support but do not take the place of broader programming dedicated to achieving tenure security, indigenous peoples, women’s empowerment or livelihoods objectives.
Define and Communicate Safeguard Standards
A critical foundation for efforts to address project social impacts is a framework defining the standards and principles to which the organization will be held. This often takes the form of an institutional policy; for example, the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Investment Bank, Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Global Environment Facility have all adopted some form of policy on Compulsory Resettlement and Indigenous Peoples, and ERBD and MCC also have Gender policies (USAID n.d.). Policies typically define the issues of concern to the organization, relevant standards, the role of the organization in meeting those standards, and operational measures to ensure they are met in projects, including the types of projects the organization will not support. In most cases, policies are binding on the organization, as well as on other organizations that receive funding from them.
Assess Social Impacts as Part of Project Design
Assessment of social impacts involves two key dimensions. One is understanding the project itself and the social context in which it will be implemented – such as, the communities present in the area, their land tenure systems and land uses, and legal frameworks for recognition of their tenure rights in the national context. A second dimension is predicting potential social impacts of the project within that social context. Assessment of potential social impacts should consider direct impacts as well as indirect impacts, differentiated impacts on different social groups (particularly indigenous peoples and women), and an analysis of the likelihood and significance of the predicted impacts (Vancley 2015). Assessment of social impacts should involve the participation of potentially-affected groups (VGGT 12.10), and is thus intertwined with the following element on community engagement.
The International Association for Impact Assessment’s 2015 publication on Social Impact Assessment: Guidance for assessing and managing the social impacts of projects provides detailed guidance on the scope and process for conducting up-front social impact assessments, as well as other steps to ensure effective management of social impacts throughout project design, implementation and closure. It notes that, while a key role of SIA is to predict impacts, “Equally important is the role of SIA in contributing to the ongoing management of social issues through the whole project development cycle…” (Vancley 2015). While primarily oriented towards private sector companies and investors, USAID’s Operational Guidelines for Responsible Land-Based Investment contain further guidance on social impact assessment, stakeholder engagement and other best practice elements relevant to development projects (Boudreaux and Neyman 2015).
Ensure Effective Community Engagement and Participation in Decision-Making, Including Securing FPIC Where Actions May Affect Indigenous Peoples
Full and effective participation of potentially-affected communities is essential for sound project design and implementation. It enhances social impact assessment and management by engaging the knowledge and perspectives of communities, including by providing an opportunity to validate other information. Meaningful consultation requires that potentially-affected groups have a real opportunity to influence the design and implementation of the project. Community participation is also essential for securing a project’s social license to operate, and is widely accepted as a procedural right; for example, as established in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, and the European Aarhus Convention (Vancley 2015; Springer and Campese 2008). The Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure identify consultation and participation as essential principles of implementation (VGGT 3B.5; Boudreaux and Neyman 2015).
Effective consultation and participation in decision making are generally core elements of social safeguard policies for particular issues or groups – for example, promoting informed participation and meaningful consultation in relation to compulsory resettlement, ensuring meaningful consultation and free, prior, informed consent (FPIC) to actions affecting indigenous peoples, and ensuring participation of women. As with social impact assessment, community engagement, consultation and FPIC are highlighted here as part of the initial project design, but should be ongoing throughout project development, management and monitoring.
Develop Dedicated Plans to Address Potential Social Impacts
Where potential social impacts are identified, a further good practice element is to develop a social impact management plan in order to ensure the issue is effectively addressed over the course of project design and implementation. Social safeguard policies on land-related social impacts generally require dedicated plans – for example, multilateral development bank policies on resettlement require that borrowers prepare Resettlement Action Plans (RAP) for projects involving resettlement, and policies on indigenous peoples require that borrowers prepare Indigenous Peoples Plans where initial impact assessment and consultations identify activities affecting indigenous peoples.
Dedicated plans ensure that impact management measures are worked through in detail, agreed, and documented; they also provide a basis for accountability. Plans should define how potential adverse impacts will be avoided, minimized, mitigated, or compensated for, and how affected groups will receive appropriate social and economic benefits from the project. Plans should include a budget, implementation schedule and monitoring and reporting plan and should be prepared sufficiently early in the planning process so they can inform assessment of the overall project feasibility. The outcomes of dedicated plans to address social impacts should also be subject to evaluation.
Proactively Strengthen Land Tenure and Resource Governance – Including National Policies and Their Implementation
In contexts of weak tenure security, project interventions often cannot effectively ensure against negative impacts without complementary investments in strengthening broader frameworks and capacities for land tenure and resource governance. For example, ensuring that indigenous territorial rights are not infringed may require support to the capacity of indigenous organizations to defend their rights in relation to other actors or land uses (against encroachment and competing claims), or support for the demarcation and registration of indigenous lands. Similarly, guarding against compulsory displacement may require investments in the capacity of relevant government agencies or processes to strengthen national legislation regarding alternative approaches and compensation. The emphasis in the recently enacted Girls Count Act on supporting key ministries to strengthen property rights and land tenure security also reflects this orientation towards strengthening governance contexts. The need for these complementary investments reflects the fact that risks of adverse social impacts are in large part a function of the broader governance environment within which projects are designed and implemented (Springer and Campese 2008).
Monitor Social Impacts as Part of Project Interventions, and Adapt Accordingly
As projects are implemented, it is good practice to monitor the potential social impacts identified in the SIA as an integral part of overall project monitoring. Effective monitoring depends on development of indicators to measure social impacts. The process of developing and monitoring these indicators should also be participatory, involving project affected people. Monitoring must then feed into an ongoing process of adaptive management, including corrective action where monitoring identifies unanticipated social impacts or ineffective measures to address them.
Establish Accessible and Effective Grievance Mechanisms
As a complement to proactive tracking of impacts through monitoring systems, grievance mechanisms enable affected communities to raise their concerns regarding development projects, and guarantee that they will receive a response. Grievance mechanisms typically operate at two levels – project and institutional. Establishing good practices for project-level grievance mechanisms would include ensuring that they are: 1) proportional to the project’s risk of adverse impacts; 2) culturally appropriate; 3) accessible to communities; 4) transparent and accountable; and that they 5) protect against retribution and do not impede judicial remedies (IFC 2009; CAO 2008; USAID n.d.; Boudreaux and Neyman 2015). Institutional grievance mechanisms provide recourse for affected communities whose complaints are not resolved at the project level, and enable institutional oversight, learning, and iterative strengthening of complaints resolution processes.
These measures provide important safeguards against potential adverse, land-related social impacts of USAID-supported development projects. Taking account of these social impacts is essential to ensure that projects do not inadvertently cause harm, undermine USAID’s development objectives, contravene existing policy commitments, or erode public support for USAID operations. Moreover, actions to address social impacts contribute to enhancing the overall tenure and resource governance benefits of projects to communities, thus providing a foundation for realizing a wide range of poverty reduction, indigenous rights, women’s empowerment, ecosystem management, and climate change goals.