The farmer and the cowman, the musical Oklahoma tells us, should be friends. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a remarkable young African woman who campaigns for land rights for her pastoralist Mbororo people, would agree.
She believes grazing and cultivating communities can benefit each other, in a traditional seasonal synergy. "It starts with cowshit," she explains disarmingly. The dung dropped by the Mbororo's cattle, roaming vast areas across Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, is an essential source of fertility for crops after they have moved on.
But problems arise when the Mbororo retrace their steps, and find land they have grazed for centuries fenced off for exclusive cultivation, often without even a corridor for their cattle to pass through, and with no prior negotiation. Ibrahim argues that customary communal use of land should recognised as a legal right worldwide.
Ibrahim represents the Congo Basin region on the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee. She has won remarkable concessions from the government of her native Chad, such as flexible school schedules and curriculums for pastoralist children, whose patterns of life do not conform to a five-day working week.
She spoke to The Irish Times after participating this week in a round-table on land rights at the bi-annual conference (COP12) of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Ankara. Many NGO delegates expressed concern that the convention's proposal to rehabilitate degraded land globally could have negative, if unintended, consequences.
UNCCD is usually seen as the poor relation of the UN environmental bodies which emerged from the historic 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development, but that may be changing.
Hitherto mainly restricted to arid land issues, especially in Africa, the UNCCD has long been dwarfed by the more global reach of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which starts its critical COP21 negotiations in Paris next month.
Those who hope for some real movement on climate change at those talks can find grounds for optimism in the outcomes so far in Ankara. After byzantine discussions over 10 days, the conference finally accepted, in principle, the ambitious new target of “land degradation neutrality”.
That is, the restoration of degraded land to productivity, in each country each year, should be the equivalent of the land lost. Since 12 million hectares of productive land are degraded annually across the globe, this is a very challenging aspiration. The agreement is a significant expansion of UNCCD’s role, because wetlands and forests as well as arid lands are degraded by unsustainable use. The convention decision, if implemented fully, could affect Ireland and Bangladesh as much as Mali and the Sudan.
“Land degradation neutrality” is an awkward mouthful at first, for sure. And it risks joining “sustainable land management” and a dozen other familiar “green” labels that governments and corporations love to display, but all too rarely put effectively into practice.
If it were achieved, however, it would not only help supply rapidly increasing demand for food production, it would also mitigate carbon emissions. This is because restored land generally stores carbon, while degraded land often emits CO2. So it could have an impact on how emission reductions are negotiated in Paris and beyond.
However, as some land rights activists see it, there is a serious snag in the proposal. They argue that it needs to be hedged by much clearer definitions of “degradation”, and accompanied by legal recognition for the world’s many millions of untenured small farmers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples. Otherwise, it could accelerate the current trend towards ‘land-grabbing’ by states, corporations and private individuals.
Michael Taylor, director of the International Land Coalition, told the conference a new study demonstrated that as much as 65 per cent of the earth's land surface is claimed by indigenous peoples and local communities, through customary usage and management. But only 18 per cent of this land is acknowledged as communally owned by governments.
Squatters on ancestral lands
“This is a concern,” he said, “because it is land on which up to 1.5 billion people live and use, but over which they have no legal control. In other words, they are legally squatters on land that in most cases has been theirs for generations.
“ As competition for this land increases, and this competition becomes increasingly unequal, so does their risk of dispossession.”
The question of definitions is almost as tricky as the issue of legal rights. Where one person sees good pasture, another may see degraded land.
“Hindou’s people know the land they graze as very productive on a seasonal basis,” said Taylor after listening to our interview, “but a government or a corporation might say it can only become fully productive if it is irrigated.”
Forcing unsuitable land into industrialised agricultural production, however, often exhausts the soil. It can destroy its productivity long term through salinisation. So we are left with the paradox that, unless there are clear guidelines, efforts to restore land wrongly considered degraded could lead to the degradation of productive land.
Land degradation neutrality may indeed be the next big thing in tackling the global environmental crisis. But it clearly needs to be fire-walled against the worst tendencies of the species which just invented it. Paddy Woodworth moderated a discussion on land rights at the UNCCD conference