Another land governance paradigm shift: Is this one better than the last?


AUTHOR: Edward Searight, University of Sheffield

Hosted on the International Land Coalition’s website

14 May, 2015

In the plenary on Sustainability – making land governance work for sustainable development, Achim Steiner (UNEP Director) stated that “Land governance will become ever more central. In a world of now more than 7 billion people, soon to become 8,9,10 billion people, our ability to collectively, equitably and sustainably govern land and land use is a central part of the answer of being able to look forward to a future of sustainable development”.

This statement, along with another on land use and land use change creating 25% of world CO2 emissions situated, more so than any other public statements at the 4 day conference, the need for including environmental considerations within sustainable land governance.

Now, wouldn’t it be marvellous if we could all just accept the problems of land governance and sustainable development and tackle it head on and in a pragmatic way? Can’t be that hard can it? Alas, it is. And here’s one of the many reasons why. The concept and practice of sustainable land governance is awash with various jargonistic terms which serve to muddy the waters of development thinking and policy pragmatism.

Paradigms or narratives are such examples of jargon in development but have dictated the direction of policy for the last half century or so. One of the key criticisms of past and current paradigms has been of their capture and dilution in policy making and the resulting limited poverty alleviation impact on people’s lives in the Global South. The value of the conference held in Dakar this week is with the minimal interference of state actors. Instead the 152 members of the coalition representing civil society across 54 countries are free to discuss and debate without pandering to the political alignments of states.

The latest thinking is what many in the development scene call the ‘landscape approach’ (including in Steiner’s address), which was discussed at great length in Lima in December 2014 at the Global Landscapes Forum and touched upon by Steiner at the ILC conference. This new paradigm is described by Paula Cabarello, Senior Director of Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice at the World Bank, as aiming to:

“Provide tools for managing land to achieve social, economic, and environmental objectives in areas where agriculture, mining, and other productive land uses compete with environmental and biodiversity goals”

Although this may read like a continuation of current paradigms of simple land management definitions (see article by Etana for the evolution of development paradigms) the landscape approach superimposes for example women’s empowerment on the local landscape to understand how land use and traditional land rights for women relate to one another.

Despite the potential merits of the landscape approach, there was little engagement with it in the conference. This could have been because Steiner’s address was made on the last day or because the concept is burgeoning and little developed. The deciding factor as to whether this paradigm proves to be an improvement or not will rely on the level of engagement from CSOs and those living within landscapes.


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