Two years on: What became of 'The Guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests?'

Stéphane Parmentier

Blog post by Stéphane Parmentier

Oxfam in Belgium, Policy Advisor on Food and Agriculture
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9 March 2012 is a memorable date. In any case, I will never forget it. Late that night, at the headquarters of the FAO in Rome, intense negotiations concluded at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) on a landmark agreement on how to govern land (the “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security” - “the Guidelines”).

Two months later, on 11 May 2012, the text was officially adopted during an extraordinary session of the CFS. The Guidelines are the first and only global framework setting out principles and internationally accepted standards on how these resources, vital to the lives and livelihoods of communities around the world, should be governed.

Securing the right to resources

Participation by civil society, facilitated by FIAN International through the Civil Society Mechanism, was a remarkable feature of the negotiations, bringing together representatives of smallholder farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, agricultural and food workers, indigenous peoples, women's organizations and other civil society actors like ActionAid and Oxfam.

Though their content is not perfect, the Guidelines represent an important step towards secure access to land and other related natural resources for those who depend on it for their food and livelihoods.

Global support

The Guidelines have now received global recognition, including by the G8, G20 and Rio +20 meetings in 2012. Initiatives have been launched by governments and international organizations to support their implementation, including commitments by the World Bank, a four-year support program developed by the FAO, the G8 countries though land partnerships with developing countries and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

Even the private sector, which until recently had shown relatively little interest in the Guidelines, has started to act on them – see the recent commitments of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co partly in response to pressure from Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign

Good intentions are not enough

“The world is not built on intentions alone!” my maternal grandmother would have muttered if she was still alive. And she would be right. The real question is: what progress has been achieved on the ground so far? Unfortunately the answer has to be: not much. It would be unfair to say that nothing has been done. No-one can seriously expect the Guidelines to be a single ‘magic bullet’ solution: improving land governance is complex and takes time. Rome was not built in a day. Still, more could, and should, have been done to start translating the principles of the Guidelines into reality.

Enhancing inclusivity: turning goodwill into practice

Two issues are particularly crucial. First, while all actors have unanimously recognized the need for inclusivity, all too often initiatives to apply the Guidelines in practice are going ahead without the meaningful participation of those suffering most from lack of access and control over land and natural resources.  Governments including the US and EU as well as international organizations like the FAO and the World Bank, keep repeating that they intend to support truly inclusive processes. Yet, despite good will and well-polished arguments, when they are asked to explain how this will effectively include and address the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized, they fail to come up with any concrete plan.

The Land Core Group (LCG), a Burmese civil society network, knows this only too well. On 3 October 2013, LCG addressed a letter to the FAO in Rome, complaining about the lack of inclusivity on both the Government and the FAO national office’s part during implementation of the Guidelines in Burma. Many constituencies from civil society, including the landless, agricultural workers, pastoralists and herders, and indigenous peoples, were not invited to the national workshop held in Nay Pyi Taw in early 2013. And six months after the workshop, there was still no response despite e-mails from Land Core Group requesting that civil society and especially farmers and fisher-folk be involved in the process. To date, no significant progress has been made to address LCG’s legitimate concerns. Is this “inclusivity"?

“Voluntary”, but not optional

A second major problem lies in the persistent reluctance of many governments to take action, on the pretext that the Guidelines are “voluntary”, i.e. non-legally binding. In practice, this argument is used by those who do not want to jeopardize various binding policies such as trade, investment and biofuels policies which contradict the Guidelines’ principles. Such binding policies may, for example, violate legitimate tenure rights and other human rights, or lead to environmental degradation, because they protect the vested interests of a few above the common interest. 

Such an approach ignores the fact that, though “voluntary”, the Guidelines are strongly anchored in binding Human Rights norms. They are an application and clarification of Human Rights obligations, including the realization of the right to adequate food, in the specific context of land, fisheries and forests tenure governance. By approving their adoption, governments have validated this interpretation. In other words, the principles contained in the Guidelines are not optional or discretionary. 

Does this mean that the Guidelines should be mandatory, as a Treaty would be? Would they have more of a chance of being implemented if they were? The answer is not clear. In an ideal world, where regulations enforce the prioritization of human rights over the vested interests of a few, the answer would be yes. We must continue to fight for that world. But in the real world, the “binding” character of international human rights legislation does not ensure its effective application. If this were the case, would hunger not belong to the past following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948? 

The year ahead

In the end, the Guidelines are a tool and a very valuable one at that. Nothing more, nothing less. Do we want this tool to contribute to improved land governance? Then let’s fight for that, by holding governments and international institutions to account and ensuring that the voices of the most vulnerable and marginalized are heard and their concerns properly addressed. Then in a year’s time, when the Guidelines turn 3, it may be a happier birthday.

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