Indigenous Land Rights

Module Progress:

When we talk about soil, it’s important that we remember the cultural and political context of soil building. So, we begin our discussion about soil biology with a discussion of land rights, as land rights are linked to indigenous peoples, biocultural diversity and the soil they have access to. Without land access, it is difficult to get to know and care for their soil in a lasting way. Traditional knowledge and cultural practices are tied in many ways to ancestral lands. To begin, please watch this video, on the “Benefits of Territory” from the Territories of Life toolkit:

Film 1: Benefits of Territory

In many cultures, land is used for traditional cultural practices, and often is seen to have spiritual significance. For example, indigenous people of the Andes revere the goddess Pachamama, also known as the earth/time mother. In Inca mythology, Pachamama is a fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting, embodies the mountains, and causes earthquakes (Wikipedia). She is also an ever-present and independent deity who has her own self-sufficient and creative power to sustain life on this earth. Honoring Pachamama is also a testament to these cultures respect and connection to the land and natural forces she represent. This type of reverence for land and the natural world is ever-present in cultures throughout the world and history, made clear just with a glimpse at this staggering list of nature dieties: With these deep spirtiual and cultural connection also comes a profound understanding of nature and land management that has been both disregarded and eroded by shifts towards development, unfair access to land and “modernization”. Below is an excerpt that connects traditional knowledge to land rights, and the dangers of separating them.

Excerpt 1: “Benefit-sharing and traditional knowledge: the need for international guidance”

by Elisa Morgera and Elsa Tsioumani | from The BENELEX project, 2014

Traditional knowledge has not received an international definition. It is generally understood to cover a wide range of fields, including for instance environmental knowledge, agricultural practices, medical treatments, literary and artistic expressions and cultural practices. The CBD refers to a specific part of traditional knowledge: the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. In other words, it is the knowledge built through generations by a group living in an intimate connection with nature. It is a living form of knowledge that is part and parcel of the identity, cultural and/or spiritual practices and natural resource management of indigenous peoples and local communities. In addition, it is a body of knowledge that is protected, preserved and shared according to the customary rules of the indigenous peoples or local communities holding it.

…Traditional knowledge is, however, inextricably linked to indigenous peoples’ culture and own governance systems. As a result, it has been threatened and eroded in the past by colonization and mandatory assimilation, and more recently by relocation policies and globalization forces that marginalize indigenous peoples and local communities and deprive them in various ways of tenure over lands, territories and natural resources that they have traditionally owned, occupied and/or used. In addition, traditional lifestyles are rapidly disappearing, as the younger members of the communities are reluctant to continue with traditional practices.

Below, you’ll read about land rights as a crucial part of human rights:

Article 1: “Land Rights-A Crucial Component of ESC rights”

paraphrasing Macli-ing Dulag | from University of Minnesota Human Rights Resource Center 

“How can we say we own the land?  How can we own something that will outlive us?  Truly, it is not we who own land, rather it is the land which owns us.”

       Paraphrasing Macli-ing Dulag, Tribal Chieftain of the Kalinga, the Cordillera Mountains, Philippines


Land rights, particularly in the context of developing countries, are inextricably linked with the right to food, the right to work and a host of other human rights.  In many instances, the right to land is bound up with a community’s identity, its livelihood and thus its very sur­vival. For farmers, peasants and fisherfolk, land is a vital component of a particular way of life.  For this reason, peasants and poor farmers are generally opposed to the conversion of vast tracts of land for commercial monocropping, such as for sugar, tobacco, rubber, palm oil, etc. [1] Fisherfolk are usually opposed to large infrastructure and commer­cial projects along rivers, lakes and coasts because of pollution, dispossession of land, limi­tations on access to traditional livelihood and other disruptive changes that threaten their survival. [2]In India recently thousands of subsistence farmers, traditional fisherfolk, workers, women’s groups and villagers protested en masse against the World Trade Organi­zation’s policies.  The protests were partly sparked off by the suicides of 450 peasant farmers in the states of Andra Pradesh and Karnataka.  In India, more than 600 mil­lion people-70% of the population-are desperately poor and depend directly on the land and environment for survival.  “It is the life resource of the majority of our people whose subsistence directly depends on the water, forests and the land.  It is about justice.” 3


A Way of Life in the Philippines

“Many years ago, the government made a study and decided that four dams should be built in the Chico River and Pasiw River in Kalinga and in Bontoc province. There is one dam that is to be built at Bontoc, Bontoc, and they call it Chico I; another dam at Sandanga, Bontoc, Chico II; another dam at Basao, Kalinga, that is Chico III; and the biggest at Lubuangan, Kalinga, Chico IV. These dams are supposed to develop 70,000 kilowatts of electric power. They are also supposed to irrigate the entire Cagayan Valley area. And so from the purely economic point of view, these projects sound as if they were economic development. That is one side of the matter.

“But now, let us look at the other side. To go through with these four dams will mean that you will take out 5,000 Bontoc and Kalinga families from their homes; you will take them out from where they have lived from time immemorial and put them in the lowlands where they will die a slow death. It means that we will destroy 1,500 of our rice terraces.

“But more important than the destruction of homes, more important than the displacement of people, is the fact that we are being forced to change the way of life of people who are genuinely Filipinos. We Christians of the lowlands proudly call ourselves Filipino. But the truth of the matter is: The true Filipinos are our brothers in Kalinga and Bontoc. They have maintained their culture, their way of life, their beliefs, their religion, for more than one thousand years. They were already here long before the Spaniards arrived. And now because of progress, they are to be uprooted and brought to the lowlands. One of the most important scenic wonders of the world-our rice terraces-are going to be in part destroyed. But more valuable than these are the religious beliefs of the people of Bontoc and Kalinga.

“For them the big trees and forests in their environment are their churches. They pray there, beseeching help from their God. The spirits of their ancestors are alive, buried in their ancestral grounds. The entire history of their race is written in their rice terraces. And so these people are prepared to fight to the death rather than give up their land.” 4

For the urban poor on the other hand, land is more than simply living space.  In most in­stances, the urban poor live in communities that have been settled for a substantial period of time.  Development of the community includes access to a means of livelihood, to edu­cation, to health care, all of which stand to be disrupted in cases of eviction.

It is not difficult to see why historically land rights have been a flash point and landlessness invariably a cause of social unrest.

Feudal ex­ploi­tation, the process of colonization and the passing of natural resources to state control, encroachments by private com­mercial interests and now glob­alization-these are the main historical factors that have defined contemporary conflicts involving land and land rights.  It is perhaps the historical im­portance of land that has made the question of the rights to land a very broad and complex subject matter.

The Muslim rebellion in the Philip­pines, the Palestinians’ struggle for the return of their homeland, the Zapatista move­ment in Mexico and many other conflicts that are very much part of today’s news, involve land.  Indeed, issues of access to land and land security con­tinue to have an impact on a very significant part of the world’s population who still depend on land ac­cess and security for their subsistence and livelihood.

“For the billions of the world’s rural poor, land security must be seen as a necessary precon­dition for the realization of other internationally protected human rights.”5 Despite this, land rights issues have rarely been addressed from an international human rights perspective.  This is in part due to the fact that land is­sues are very complex.  Land rights do not just pertain to the right of ownership. They also refer to access, use, possession and oc­cupation of land, and security of such use, possession or tenure.  Local and national landowning and land use sys­tems vary con­siderably from country to coun­try and, frequently, within countries.  As a re­sult, identi­fying and reaching agreement on princi­ples and standards that can usefully be applied across borders and systems have proved to be very difficult.

Land Tenure, Livelihood and the Environment

In Centre for Environmental Law, WWF-I v. Union of India and others,11 the petitioners, World Wide Fund for Nature, approached the Supreme Court of India by way of a public interest petition in 1995. All over the country, state governments had issued notifications of intent under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, demarcating areas for wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. However, the process for assessing claims for compensation of those who would be dispossessed was not being undertaken and as a result, the final proclamation notifications under section 21 of the act were not being made. At the request of the petitioners, the court issued a blanket direction in August 1997 to all the state governments to complete the compensation procedure and issue final notifications within one year.12

The results have been catastrophic. The court did not consider that thousands of people are dependent for their livelihood on the forests and grasslands falling within the demarcated areas, and many others live there. The recording of usufruct rights over forest areas was last undertaken a hundred years ago when India was under colonial rule, and thus a large number of people who are exercising traditional usufruct rights are not able to produce documentary proof of such rights. Their claims cannot possibly be settled in a year. Nor did the court examine the current debates within activist and academic circles questioning the conservation model on which the existing law is based, which excludes rather than involves people in conservation. The state governments have used the Supreme Court’s directions to advance their own agendas of evicting whole communities from these areas, often only to make way for large industrial projects. In many areas no claims for compensation were filed by the people likely to be affected as state governments short-circuited claims procedures under the guise of meeting the deadlines issued by the Supreme Court.

One affected area is the Great Himalayan National Park in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. The GHNP comprises mainly high altitude pastures on which more than 11,000 people depend for their survival. These rural communities have traditional grazing rights in the alpine pastures and each year an estimated 35,000 goats and sheep are taken into the pastures during the warm summer months. The people also extract medicinal herbs and plants from this area, to meet the needs of traditional medicine systems, as well as for trade. In pursuance of the Supreme Court’s orders, the government of Himachal Pradesh issued a final notification on 21 May 1999 declaring the boundaries of the national park, and forbidding further exercise of traditional usufruct rights in the area. Compensation was given to only 312 families, since the state relied upon records of rights made during the British Raj 110 years ago. No independent inquiry into current rights exercise was undertaken.
A further twist in the tale arises out of the Parbati Hydel project being constructed by the government in an area adjoining the park. One part of the area demarcated for the park, which formed part of the core area, was “left out” from the final notification in order to make way for a surge tunnel, which would feed the Parbati project. Thus, while the government has excluded rural communities from any participation in the conservation of this ecologically rich area, which these very communities have preserved over centuries, it has not thought twice about allowing so-called “developmental interests” to have their way. The tragedy is that the Supreme Court and the state have refused to hear the voices of these rural communities. An application by several NGOs that are working with communities dependent on these areas, seeking permission to be heard by the court, has been rejected.

 Global Struggle for Land Rights around the World

The struggle to maintain the right to land is being fought all over the world. Please, explore one of the following videos to learn how indigenous cultures are tied to and view land, and how they are fighting for control of their lands.

Film 2: The Other Cambodia: Indigenous People’s Land and Rights

Film 3: The Zapatista Uprising (20 Years Later)

Film 4: Peru’s Indigenous People Call for Environmental Protections

Film 5: The Land Owns Us (Australia)

Film 6: Land Grabs and Development in Mali