National laws and community rights

There is a need to close the gap between national laws, corporate practice and the rights of communities

Here’s an estimate that should stir things up in the contentious world of community land rights and indigenous peoples’ rights—the laxity of which in India are key components of the greatest internal security threat alongside poverty, bad governance and corruption. According to a recent report by Rights and Resource Initiative (RRI), such communities are “estimated to hold as much as 65% of the world’s land area through customary, community-based tenure systems", but national governments recognize “formal, legal rights of indigenous peoples and local communities" to a small fraction of such lands.

About 18% on average.

Figures are staggering. For instance, an estimate for India, one of 64 countries tracked for the report, 40 million hectares (nearly 100 million acres) of “customarily-held forest land" is yet to secure “formal, legal recognition".

The September 2015 report titled ‘Who Owns the World’s Land: A Global Baseline of Formally Recognized Indigenous and Community Land Rights’ by Washington DC-based Rights and Resource Group, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that backstopped the initiative with more than a dozen partners and sponsors, claimed collaboration with 150 community rights organizations worldwide. The report is available at

“Now there is absolutely no mystery why there is so much conflict in the rural world, and why there is so much violence over investments and agriculture and mining in those areas," Andy White, a coordinator for RRI, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

White’s dramatic demystification may be news for those on the dark side of Planet Policy, but such truth has stared India and the world in the face for several decades. A combination of greater activism, better communication, and increasing judicial redress is today moving such matters from relative obscurity to publicity mandated by victims, self-help groups, and sponsored by do-gooders. There was never a mystery, just the lack of an effective mustering of data, views and laws contrary to conventional wisdom mandated by governments and sponsored by businesses.

The infection was widespread, and preventive, curative suggestions rarely travelled beyond Planet NGO. It took until 2011 for the United Nations (UN), that platform of frequent multinational bombast often criticized as a nursery of pampered bureaucratic salaries, to finally endorse “guiding principles" on business and human rights. These were articulated by John Ruggie, a human rights guru currently engaged in a spirited debate about a binding UN treaty to hold trans-national businesses accountable for their human rights sins.

To be fair though, the UN has since been on a bit of a roll. In August 2015, the UN shared with its General Assembly the “Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the rights of indigenous peoples’ on the impact of international investment and free trade on the human rights of indigenous peoples."

Such long-winded formality was leavened with sharp commentary by its author, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. The UN secretary general’s note underscored a point from the report among several: “...that investment clauses of free trade agreements and bilateral and multilateral investment treaties, as they are currently conceptualized and implemented, have actual and potential negative impacts on indigenous peoples’ rights, in particular on their rights to self-determination; lands, territories and resources; participation; and free, prior and informed consent".

At a recent conference in Bern, as I read separately in the Thomson Reuters Foundation report that quoted RRI’s White, Tauli-Corpuz was as incandescent as an UN official can get. She said she had observed a “retreat" in implementation of community land rights, among other countries, in the Philippines, Brazil, Paraguay and India. “States comply more with investment and free trade agreements because these have heavier sanctions in terms of economic payments," she was quoted as saying. “But for the human rights conventions, there are no such sanctions...and that is one of the weaknesses."

Those at the receiving end don’t require such elucidation: they have lived it, suffered it—live it, suffer it. Stands such as those taken by international organizations, and studies of the sort undertaken by RRI, add to the ammunition of the proponents of due process and justice as undertaken by the constitution and laws of most countries—including India, currently in massive conflict in the sphere of economic growth and attendant human rights issues—and perhaps more glibly undertaken in corporate brochures. There is a need, as RRI’s report states, “to close the gap between national laws, corporate practice, and communities’ rights".

Equity isn’t a red herring.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays

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