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Forum Recognizes Indigenous Peoples Land Rights

One of Burkina Faso's indigenous people. Credit: International Land Coalition
One of Burkina Faso's indigenous people. Credit: International Land Coalition

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Joe DeCapua
Africa has been the focus of large-scale foreign land acquisitions following the food and financial crises of 2008 and 2009. The 1st Africa Land Forum is being held in Cameroon this week (11-7/8) to consider how those deals are affecting indigenous people.


The 1989 Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples says governments “shall respect the special importance for the cultures - and spiritual values of the peoples concerned - of their relationship with the lands or territories…they occupy.” The treaty adds that “the rights of ownership and possession…shall be recognized.”

Organizers of the 1st Africa Land Forum say those rights are not being recognized in many countries, including the host country Cameroon.

“You know that the land issue is really moving very fast. There are substantive changes taking place with the global interest in land now. You have heard about the large-scale land acquisitions. Some call it land-grabbing and Africa is a primary target of this land-grabbing,” said Madiodio Niasse, director of the Rome-based International Land Coalition.

The coalition estimates there are 350-million indigenous people in the world, adding while they represent 5 percent of the population, they represent 15 percent of the world’s poor.

Niasse said African land is highly prized because the continent has – what he called -- the “biggest yield gap.” That is, the amount of food currently being produced is no where near the continent’s potential.

“That is why the continent is really the prime target,” he said.

He said that China, which used to be food self-sufficient, is now importing “massive amounts” of food. It is one of the countries acquiring land in Africa for food production. Others include India and Saudi Arabia. There are also many international companies and universities that are buying land, including those in the U.S. and Britain. It’s not just for crops for food either, but for biofuels as well. Niasse added that large foreign land acquisitions are more likely to happen in countries with either weak or authoritarian governments.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates between 2007 and 2010, international investors acquired over 20 million hectares of land in Africa.

The International Land Coalition director said indigenous people have hard hit by the land deals.

“The indigenous people are also the most victims because of the fact that they are common property users. They don’t have private land titles. And therefore the land they use is generally considered [by] the capital cities as unused land and therefore the land that can be given to foreign investors,” he said.

In addition, Niasse said since indigenous people live on the periphery of society, they have very little political influence.

“When indigenous people’s land is given away, they have to move to another place, and therefore they will be foreign in another area. These are the groups which have an intimate relationship with their environment. It’s not only for their own livelihoods, but it’s in fact their culture. Their identity is associated with a given physical environment,” he said.

Niasse also said some African countries do not recognize certain populations as indigenous. Instead, they claim that all Africans are indigenous. Niasse says the rights of indigenous people have received greater recognition elsewhere in the world.

Organizers said the 1st African Land Forum aims to “demonstrate the importance of secure and equitable land access” to the “poor, vulnerable and marginalized.” It also seeks to “identify concrete actions” to improve land policy and implementation.

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