Kayapó woman. The Kayapó people maintain legal control over an area of 10.6 million hectares (around 26 million acres) of primary tropical forest and savanna in the southeastern Amazon region of Brazil. (© Cristina Mittermeier)
Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?”
In this installment, we break down “land tenure,” a concept with major implications for conservation.
What is land tenure?
At its most basic, “land tenure” refers to the rights of people or communities to manage (own and use) the land that they reside on.
Meaning, if you reside on the land, you get to have control over managing it?
Sort of — it’s not that simple. In some places in the world, it’s not easy to ascertain who has the right to manage land, or even who has the right to live there. Many indigenous groups, for example, live on lands that are governed not by formal laws but by informal “customary” agreements — their historical, even ancient, association with the land is the basis of their “right” to manage it. This lack of formal, legally binding land rights can expose these communities to risks.
What kinds of risks?
Here’s a simplistic example. Say there’s a community in a remote area surrounded by forests. They’ve managed the forest for centuries; they derive their food, their livelihoods, even their spiritual beliefs from the forest. But one day the government wants to dam a nearby river; or a timber company wants to begin logging in the area; or a neighboring community wants to expand their farms into the forest. Even if there is legal recognition of the forest community’s tenure through their ancestral links to the area, if there is no legal protection to back it up, the community can be powerless to prevent incursions on it. As a result, their well-being, livelihoods and culture can be eroded.