In May 2012 the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (http://www.fao.org/nr/tenure/voluntary-guidelines/en/). The CFS is the United Nations’ forum for reviewing and following up on policies concerning world food security.

The tenure guidelines seek to provide guidance to improve the governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests, with the overarching goal of achieving food security for all and to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food. Based on key international human rights standards, such as prohibition of forced evictions, non-discrimination and gender equality, human rights, responsibilities of business enterprises, and access to justice and remedies, the guidelines seek to improve the governance of tenure for the benefit of all, with an emphasis on vulnerable and marginalized people. Fundamentally, the guidelines recognize that the livelihoods of many people, and especially the rural poor, are based on access to land, fisheries and forests and that having secure and equitable access to these natural resources is an important factor in eradicating hunger and poverty.

The guidelines, the first international instrument that provides guidance on the governance of land, fisheries and forests, outline principles and practices that governments can refer to when making policies and laws and administering land, fisheries and forests rights. They seek to enable government authorities, the private sector, civil society and citizens to assess tenure governance, and identify improvements and apply them. 

The guidelines were finalized after an intensive three-year CFS-led negotiation process that saw the participation of government officials, civil society organizations, private sector representatives, international organizations and academics. Notably, the process adopted allowed representatives of small-scale food producers themselves, including of farmers, fishing communities and pastoralists, to participate at all stages of the negotiations, to draw attention to the real life issues facing them and to make concrete proposals. The high degree of participation and inclusiveness in this process is unprecedented in intergovernmental negotiations, and establishes an important precedent to expand the democratization of decision making processes at the international level.

The guidelines address a wide range of important issues, including: the recognition and protection of legitimate tenure rights, including customary tenure rights, even where such rights are not formally recorded or recognized by law; and managing expropriations and restitution of land to people who were forcibly evicted in the past and rights of indigenous communities.

In the context of publicly-owned lands, the guidelines recognize the need to protect the legitimate tenure rights of individuals and communities, including of those with customary tenure systems. Noting also that many publicly-owned land, fisheries and forests are collectively used and managed (in some national contexts referred to as commons), States are asked to recognize and protect such publicly-owned land, fisheries and forests and their related systems of collective use and management, including in processes of allocation by the State.

Negotiated against the backdrop of growing instances of land and resource grabbing, the guidelines recommend that safeguards be put in place to protect tenure rights of local people from risks that could arise from large-scale acquisitions in tenure rights, and also to protect human rights, livelihoods, food security and the environment. Responsible investments are defined -  they should do no harm, safeguard against dispossession of legitimate tenure rights holders and environmental damage, and should respect human rights. The obligations of States to protect local communities, indigenous peoples and vulnerable groups from land speculation and land concentration, and to regulate land markets to protect social, cultural and environmental values are stressed. States are also called on to support investments by smallholders themselves, considering that they contribute significantly to food security, nutrition, poverty eradication and environmental resilience.

While civil society groups have broadly welcomed the guidelines, they have also put on record some of their reservations. In particular, they have expressed concern that the guidelines do not cover water, that they have not explicitly challenged “the blatant untruth” that large investments in industrial agriculture, fisheries and forests are essential for development, and that they have not played an important role in further consolidating the recognized rights of indigenous peoples, as articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIPS) and other international instruments, in the context of tenure.

The all-round effort is now to ensure implementation of the guidelines, to improve the governance of tenure, ensuring that the focus is on the vulnerable and marginalized, to achieve food security and poverty eradication.

Chandrika Sharma, Executive Secretary, International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) (www.icsf.net)
icsf@icsf.net