The eradication of hunger and poverty, and the sustainable use of the environment, depend, in a large measure, on how people, communities and others gain access to land, fisheries and forest resources.
The livelihoods of many, particularly the rural poor, are based on secure and equitable access to and control over these resources―being the source of food and shelter; the basis for social, cultural and religious practices; and a central factor in economic growth.
It is important to note that responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests is inextricably linked with access to and the management of other natural resources, such as water and mineral resources.
How people, communities and others gain access to land, fisheries and forests is, therefore, defined and regulated by societies through systems of tenure.
These tenure systems determine who can use which resources, for how long and under what conditions. The systems may be based on written policies and laws, as well as on unwritten customs and practices.
Indeed, tenure systems increasingly face stress as the world's growing population requires food security and as environmental degradation, and climate change reduce the availability of land, fisheries and forests.
Inadequate and insecure tenure rights are, therefore, bound to increase vulnerability, hunger and poverty, and can lead to conflict and environmental degradation when competing users fight for control of these resources.
In other words, the governance of tenure is an important factor in determining the acquisition of rights and associated duties to use and control land, fisheries and forests.
In effect, weak governance, which undermines tenure rights, is a disincentive for social stability, the sustainable use of the environment, investment and economic growth, leading to hunger, poverty, conflict and loss of lives.
On the other hand, responsible governance of tenure conversely promotes sustainable social and economic development that can help eradicate poverty and food insecurity, and encourage responsible investment.
It is against this backcloth that the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its partners saw the need to develop guidelines on responsible tenure governance.
Indeed, national policies and customs on tenure vary widely from country to country, even between countries in the same region.
In order to provide a framework for countries to use in the establishment of laws and policies, strategies, and programs which clarify and secure tenure rights, the concept of a Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) ― an international instrument that can be used by many different actors to improve the governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests― was conceived.
The VGGT have, therefore, been designed to accommodates many differing viewpoints on 'Best Practices' and introduces a broad range of structures that can be relevant in all parts of the world.
The VGGT, internationally negotiated under the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) over a nine-month period, involving 96 member countries and over 30 civil society organizations, were adopted by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in May 2012.
The word 'Voluntary' presupposes that the guidelines are not legally binding, but only serve as a reference and set out principles and internationally-accepted standards for the practices of responsible governance of tenure.
The VGGT, therefore, represent an unprecedented international consensus on tenure.
It is to be noted that the VGGT do not replace existing national laws or international laws, commitments, treaties or agreements, but encompass the principles of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is referred to as an instrument of soft law― quasi-legal instruments― which are usually not difficult for countries to reach an agreement on.
Indeed, soft law can be more comprehensive and detailed than binding legislation, being often better suited for technical matters and best practices, such as the governance of tenure.
And according to the FAO, its experience with soft law instruments is that they have a positive impact in guiding national policies and legislation in many countries.
This is to say that while recognizing the existence of different models and systems of governance of these natural resources under national contexts, states may wish to take the governance of these associated natural resources into account in their implementation of these Guidelines, as appropriate.
There are, however, implementation principles of VGGT which comprise Human dignity, Non-discrimination, Equity and justice, Gender equality and Holistic and sustainable approaches.
Human dignity, as an implementation strategy, recognizes the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable human rights of all individuals, while Non-discrimination implies that no one should be subject to discrimination under law and policies as well as in practice.
On its part, Equity and justice, recognizes that equality between individuals may require acknowledging differences between individuals and taking positive action, including empowerment, in order to promote equitable tenure rights and access to land, fisheries and forests, for all― women and men, the youth and the vulnerable as well as traditionally-marginalized people, within the national context.
Gender equality, on the other hand, ensures the equal right of women and men to the enjoyment of all human rights, while acknowledging differences between women and men and taking specific measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality when necessary. Thus, states are required to ensure that women and girls have equal tenure rights and access to land, fisheries and forests, independent of their civil and marital status.
Using a Holistic and sustainable approach means recognizing that natural resources and their uses are interconnected, which requires adopting an integrated and sustainable approach to their administration.
Thus, the VGGT provide an overarching framework, principles and guidelines, which can contribute to securing full rights to land for peasants; defending and regaining the territories of indigenous peoples; equitable and secure access to forest resources, among others; securing access to and control over fishing zones (including coastal land) and ecosystems for fishing communities; securing access to and control over pasture lands and migration routes for nomad pastoralist communities; securing access to land for the landless; securing harvesting rights for communities of gatherers; economic and social justice; environmental sustainability; and local autonomy and the self-determination of peoples.
The VGGT provide a framework that national governments are encouraged to use when developing their own strategies, policies, legislation, programmes and activities.
They allow governments, civil society, the private sector and citizens to judge whether their proposed actions and the actions of others constitute acceptable practices.
Having adopted the document, attention now needs to be shifted to implementation.
Indeed, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is, currently, investing US $ 215 million in land tenure programs in 23 countries that are helping to implement many of the principles and practices outlined in the VGGT.
Apart from USAID, FAO, International Land Coalition (ILC), Land Policy Initiative (LPI) and many other donors and organizations continue to work with governments and at country-level to ensure that the VGGT are implemented.
It is important to note that Bread for the World (a collective Christian voice that urges national decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad through changing policies, programs and conditions that allow hunger and poverty to persist) and Oxfam (an international confederation of 20 NGOs working with partners in over 90 countries to end the injustices that cause poverty) welcome the fact that the VGGT address gender equality.
However, a study conducted by Babette Wehrmann on behalf of the two agencies observes that although the guidelines acknowledge the importance of gender equality in land tenure in all activities related to the responsible governance of tenure, they leave it up to governments, companies, international organizations and development banks to put them into practice.
The study considers it a risk that the concerned actors will not integrate the guidelines systematically into their safeguards, land programmes, company policy and national laws, and urges civil society to endeavour to remind these actors of their responsibilities and to promote the implementation of VGGT.
The study also identifies the lack of resources and implementation capacities as a shortcoming of the VGGT that needs to be addressed.
Marion Lieser, Executive Director, OXFAM Germany, and Dr Klaus Seitz, Head of Policy Department, Bread for the World, note that although this shortcoming applies to the provisions generally, gender-related provisions deserve particular attention in view of the fact that in most cases, when issues with regard to gender equality are presented and discussed, the question of financing the necessary measures and policies is not sufficiently addressed.
In other words, effective implementation of the VGGT as a whole, requires gender-responsive approaches that place an emphasis on financing as well.
Indeed, according to ActionAid (an International Aid and Development Organization that fights for women's rights, social justice and an end to poverty), the extent to which the VGGT are effectively implemented will serve as a good barometer of national commitment to and progress on land tenure governance, including measures to secure the tenure of women and communities to lands and natural resources and reduce their vulnerability to environmental, social and economic shocks.
The writer is a freelance journalist and a lawyer.
By G.D. Zaney, Esq.