UN sets ‘historic’ guidelines on land rights

The United Nations has set new guidelines for giving marginalised people access to land, fisheries and forests

The voluntary guidelines are a result of a three-year discussion between governments and more than 50 NGOs. Adopted on 11 May 2012 by the Committee on World Food Security, they call on governments to be transparent about land deals and to consult local communities, while also emphasising the need for corporations to respect human rights.

It is hoped that the new agreement will help secure access rights for women, peasant farmers, fishing communities and indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on the land.

Over the past decade, it is estimated that an area eight times the size of Britain has been bought or leased in the developing world. Most of this has been in Africa and Asia where foreign governments and multinational companies have obtained land for farming and industry. There is growing concern over the issue of ‘land grabs’, whereby governments sign land deals with wealthy nations or large corporations that result in the displacement of local communities or loss of access to resources.

In a joint reaction, NGOs including Oxfam said the guidelines fall short on a number of crucial issues and are not comprehensive enough, but as a first step represent significant progress. They added that the consultation itself was a big achievement.

The director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, José Graziano da Silva said: “It is a historic breakthrough that countries have agreed on these first-ever global land tenure guidelines,” said. “We now have a shared vision. It’s a starting point that will help improve the often dire situation of the hungry and poor.”