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Countries adopt global guidelines on tenure of land, forests, fisheries

Historic international agreement on how tenure and access rights to natural resources key to food production should be handled

Photo: ©FAO/Walter Astrada
A female farmer in Uganda. Women face particular hurdles in securing land rights.
11 May 2012, Rome - In a landmark decision the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) today endorsed a set of far-reaching global guidelines aimed at helping governments safeguard the rights of people to own or access land, forests and fisheries.

The new Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security outline principles and practices that governments can refer to when making laws and administering land, fisheries and forests rights.

The guidelines are based on an inclusive consultation process started by FAO in 2009 and then finalized through CFS-led intergovernmental negotiations that included participation of government officials, civil society organizations, private sector representatives, international organizations and academics.

The aim of the guidelines: to promote food security and sustainable development by improving secure access to land, fisheries and forests and protecting the rights of millions of often very poor people.

Historic and far-reaching

"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. It is a historic breakthrough that countries have agreed on these first-ever global land tenure guidelines.  We now have a shared vision. It's a starting point that will help improve the often dire situation of the hungry and poor," said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

Much public debate has focused on the so-called ‘land-grabbing' phenomenon, which is one of the issues that are dealt with in these guidelines.

While the guidelines acknowledge that responsible investments by the public and private sectors are essential for improving food security, they also recommend that safeguards be put in place to protect tenure rights of local people from risks that could arise from large-scale land acquisitions, and also to protect human rights, livelihoods, food security and the environment.

Investment models exist that do not result in the large-scale acquisition of land, and these alternative models should be promoted. Investments should also promote policy objectives such as boosting local food security and promoting food security, poverty eradication and job creation, and "provide benefits to the country and its people, including the poor and most vulnerable."

The guidelines address a wide range of other issues as well, however, including:

· Recognition and protection of legitimate tenure rights, even under informal systems
· Best practices for registration and transfer of tenure rights
· Making sure that tenure administrative systems are accessible and affordable
· Managing expropriations and restitution of land to people who were forcibly evicted in the past
· Rights of indigenous communities
· Ensuring that investment in agricultural lands occurs responsibly and transparently
· Mechanisms for resolving disputes over tenure rights
· Dealing with the expansion of cities into rural areas

"Some of the issues addressed by the Voluntary Guidelines go back centuries even. The fact that these guidelines tackle those entrenched issues as well as newer concerns is what makes them so significant," said Graziano da Silva

Next steps

"These guidelines are the product of a three year, inclusive process of consultations and negotiations that brought together many stakeholders and ensured that a wide range of voices were heard," said Yaya Olaniran, current CFS Chair. "The result is that we have a meaningful series of principles and practices that everybody — countries, the private sector, farmers, civil society — can stand behind and support, and that will work out in the real world."

It is now up to the countries who endorsed the guidelines to put them into practice on the ground, according to Olaniran. "These 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. The CFS endorsement lends them legitimacy and strength, and all the countries involved are ready to take them on board," he said.

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

"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," he added.

Luc Maene, Chairman of the International Agri-Food Network, representing the private sector, said:  "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.  In many places, land tenure systems are effectively non-existent.  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."

FAO's Graziano da Silva added that the Organization stands ready to provide support and assistance to countries in adapting and implementing the guidelines.

As done in the past in the case of other, similar agreements — for example the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries — FAO will now develop a series of technical handbooks designed to help countries adapt the guidelines to their local contexts and put them into play. The Organization will also provide targeted technical assistance to governments towards that same end.

For its part, the CFS will next take a focused look at the issue of responsible agricultural investments in general. The body is currently planning a yearlong consultative process, to start in October, that could culminate in set of recommended principles for responsible investment in agriculture later in 2013.

Made up of governments, UN agencies, civil society organizations, agricultural research centres, financial institutions, private sector groups and philanthropic foundations, CFS is the leading global platform for discussions on food security issues and serves as a mechanism for consensus-building at the international level and policy promotion at the national level.