Defending land rights: finding solutions

A novel feature of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) Utrecht conference was the invitation to submit proposals for practitioners’ labs.  The idea was to have a number of snappy presentations and then a discussion, on a theme of practical value. 

With help from the IASC’s president, John Powell, I put together a proposal called ‘Defending land rights: exploring the solutions to current issues’, which was accepted by the conference assessors.  Despite the lab being scheduled for the last morning, we had more than 30 people which was encouraging.  The 90 minutes allocated was nothing like enough time—we were still in full flow when we had to break.

We were allocated zaal (room) 1636 which was lined with photos of  women professors of the university.

Women's room

The women’s room

John Powell chaired the session and we had contributors from all over the world.  Here are some titbits from the flipchart.

Fionuala Cregan from Land Rights Now spelt out the problem her group faces.  ThereLand rights now badge small are 2.5 billion people with no secure land rights.

LRN acts for them, communicating why land rights are important and building a global movement.  Earth Day on 22 April is a worldwide event to promote environmental and climate understanding.  Fionuala showed a couple of one-minute videos which are powerful, see here, here and here for instance.

wampis summit-590

Wampis delegates at their summit to form their autonomous government. Photo: New Internationalist

Thomas Niederberger from the University of Bern in Switzerland has been working with the Wampis in Peru’s Northern Amazon.  After decades of abuse and exploitation, the Wampis have established their own government. Their story is told in the Guardian here.  Thomas explained how they must protect 1.3 million hectares of forest to combat climate change; how the oil and gas have been exploited, with pipeline spills, a hydro dam and a terrible massacre; the lack of recognition of indigenous people as a legal category, and the action the Wampis have taken to get publicity (through the Guardian and Facebook).  There are great problems of finance, for the indigenous organisations, active research and communications, and of ensuring the people are safe.

Pranab Choudhury, Center for Land Governance, NRMC, India spoke on Community land rights and customary tenure.  There is no commonly-agreed standard or definition for common land; customary tenure is largely not legally recognised.  There is a diversity of tenure, sometimes the chief decides, sometimes there is a democratic process.  There is some legal protection but mixed implementation.



Pranab suggested that resolution is through the documentation of customary tenures and creating records of land.

Anne Larsen, Center for International Forestry Research posed some questions and thoughts.

Anne Larsen

Anne Larsen

What do we mean by success?  It is always temporary, because new challenges come.

What do we mean by recognising community land-rights?  This can take a long time.

Reforms come from many perspectives: eg conservation, rights, forests, which affect the goal.

Most positive steps come out of crisis or political change, eg from authoritarian to democratic, or vice versa.

You need: leadership, monitoring, communication and allies in government.

Leticia Merino, University of Mexico UNAM spoke on forest rights in Mexico.

Latin America has the largest area of forest land under community control.  This is the result of social movements which have had a profound effect.

In Latin America, the mining sector is very strong.  The federal government has the right to use the subsoil, oil and water.  Land grabbing is related to exports.

Sixty per cent of the forest areas are under concessions.  There is misuse of water for mining and fracking.

We need new frameworks for social action and new alliances.

For the Open Spaces Society (OSS) I talked about use rights and public access in England and Wales

In the inclosure movement of 17th-19th centuries many commons were taken from the people and put in the hands of relatively few landowners.  In 1965, we had an act of parliament to record the remaining commons.  There was no right for the public to walk on most commons.

Activists ran a campaign to win access rights for the public to commons and mapped open country.

Prentice & Meacher, Boulsworth 1997

Gordon Prentice, Michael Meacher and ramblers on the approach to Boulsworth Hill, which was forbidden land then (1997).  We were lobbying for a right-to-roam law.

Campaigns must have a clear aim or target, you must identify who is the decision maker and then focus your lobbying on that person or organisation.

For the access campaign, we had to lobby government, with evidence of need and benefit.  When a favourable government took power in 1997 we were ready with our campaign.  We won the new law in 2000 but the campaign took over 10 years.

Chris Short, Foundation for Common Land (FCL) explained that the FCL strapline is ‘collaboration, convening, championing, challenging’.

Chris spoke of a case where the Lake District National Park wanted to lease land at Glenridding Common.  The FCL talked to the national park authority and set out a number of requirements of the new lessee.  He or she must:

  • recognise the formal pastoral system and not exercise a right of veto,
  • consult the commoners,
  • manage the infrastructure supporting agricultural activities,
  • at the end of project (3 years) consult over what happens next.

FCL was successful in getting these points recognised in the lease to the John Muir Trust.


Striding Edge, Glenridding Common. Photo: John Muir Trust

Anne MacKinnon, water-law scholar from the University of Wyoming, spoke on overcoming inequity in water-use Anne McKinnonrules.  The Wind River tribe won rights to water.  There was a 1990 water code but it was subject to state law and it was still impossible to use half of the water right.

In the tribe there was great poverty with 70 per cent unemployment; it had no access to the living river—ie it had legal rights it could not exercise.

The question was how to get to co-management of the resource.

The presentations raised lots of issues for discussion, but there was little time and it was frustrating not being able to pursue points fully.  We touched on campaigning techniques but could have said so much more.

Issues which came up were:

  • you need evidence to raise awareness,
  • be ready when opportunity arises,
  • it is important to note that success is not permanent, and that failure can be temporary too,
  • you need to create a presence,
  • what is the best political strategy for protecting community rights?  There are different models for different situations,
  • there is a political attempt to hijack commons for global institutions,
  • commons need to be part of the discussion on land rights,
  • you should have a list of things not to do.

I shall send a note of the lab to all those who were there.   I have a growing list of practitioner contacts to which I add from each conference.  I am hoping that this global gathering can communicate and learn from each other’s experiences.


Wind River range, Wyoming, by Jay Ashbrook

Next year the Countryside and Community Research Institute of Gloucestershire University is running an online course on Defending the Commons, in which I am participating.  This will be one of many opportunities to continue the conservation.


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in Access, campaigns, common land, common rights, commons, International Association for the Study of the Commons, Netherlands and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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