A group of international organisations working on rights linked to natural resources has called for the amount of land recognised as owned or managed by indigenous peoples and communities to be doubled by 2018, a goal that will also require better cataloguing of land tenure.
At a major conference on community land and resource rights in Switzerland last week, participants proposed the production of a global community land tenure map that identifies the population in each area and its boundaries.
So far, most of the data collected has been segmented by land type. For forests, around 451 million hectares were owned and managed by indigenous and other local communities in 2012, representing 31 percent of the developing world's forests, up from 18 percent in 2002. But a thorough analysis of all land types has yet to be carried out.
"As natural resource development - national and international land transactions establishing logging operations, mines and agricultural plantations - extends to almost every corner of the globe, we need to secure the rights of the people who live on the land," said Duncan Pruett, policy advisor on land rights for Oxfam. "This is an age-old problem whose urgency only increases as the demand for resources skyrockets."
The conference was organised by Oxfam, Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, the International Land Coalition (ILC), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
Michael Taylor of the ILC secretariat described land rights as "a basis for food security, overcoming poverty and human dignity". "Land rights need to be prioritised if equitable and inclusive development is to take place," he added in a statement issued at the end of the conference on Friday.
The problem is that ownership of more than half of the developing world's rural areas, forests and dryland is contested, directly affecting over 2 billion people, the statement said. They often have no formal title to the lands that sustain them, nor the means to defend their rights, it added.
As governments and private investors increasingly sign deals to exploit natural resources, the ambiguity over claims to this land is fuelling social tensions and even violent conflict around the world. Such disputes can worsen poverty for local people and cause severe business disruption.
A new study of 12 emerging-economy countries, released last week, revealed that at least one out of every three hectares of land licensed for commercial exploitation in emerging economies overlaps with land to which indigenous communities have a claim.
The report, commissioned by RRI, urged investors to start factoring land tenure risk into resources deals, and to help develop a new approach that includes local communities in a more equal way.
At the Interlaken conference, 180 delegates from 40 countries - including indigenous and community leaders, representatives of the corporate and financial sectors, civil society and national governments - put forward a strategy to promote the practices of private-sector companies that have a good track record on recognising local land rights, and to take action against those that don't by improving transparency and spreading information.
There was also support for increased dialogue between conservation groups and local communities, whose interests can clash, as well as for crafting indicators to measure progress on strengthening community land rights as part of the post-2015 development framework now under discussion.
"Insecure land rights (are) a global crisis - one most immediate and direct for the millions of indigenous peoples and rural communities who risk losing their homes and livelihoods," said RRI coordinator Andy White.
"What we - governments, civil society, businesses and international NGOs - have been doing on this issue is not enough. The crisis profoundly impacts our ability to confront climate change, address food security, and overcome poverty. Together, we need to do much more," he added.