The Power of Smallholder Land Rights to Combat Climate Change

Last weekend the world rejoiced over the historic, long-awaited climate-change agreement reached at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21). While the cooperation of 190 countries around a singular issue, especially one as pressing as climate change, should be applauded, the COP21 pact is missing something major: the role of agriculture.

This year is on target to be the hottest in recorded history. Just in the past few months, we have watched El Nino, which is likely to be one of the strongest on record, create unpredictable and chaotic weather patterns, taking a tremendous toll on harvests and pushing millions into extreme poverty and emergency levels of food insecurity. Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in decades, with predictions of at least 15 million people requiring emergency food assistance by early 2016. As climate change continues to threaten global stability, it pressures the international community to enact creative solutions. One solution that hasn’t received enough attention is increasing land rights for smallholder farmers, particularly for women in the developing world.

Agriculture accounts for 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so climate-smart agricultural practices play a pivotal role in meeting COP21 agreements to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Over 90 percent of the world’s farms are managed by smallholder farmers, making it imperative to uncover barriers that they face to adopting climate-smart agricultural technologies and practices. These farmers are typically from poor, rural areas, which are the world’s most vulnerable to climate change’s negative impacts and the least capable of coping with them. Building the resiliency and capacity of smallholders is an opportunity to meld climate adaptation and mitigation. Ensuring their land rights is one strategy to secure global stability in the wake of climate change.

There is widespread recognition that insecure land rights are one of the main causes of global poverty and food insecurity and, further, that women’s land rights are fundamental to food security. Indeed, rural women produce 60 to 80 percent of food consumed in households in developing countries, yet comprise fewer than 20 percent of all smallholder landowners in the developing world and fewer than 5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Gender inequality is one of the most debilitating barriers to agricultural productivity across the developing world; it affects entire supply chains from seed access to transport to marketing and research. Research shows that if women had equal access to basic services and rights, including land, markets, farming technologies, credit, and technical trainings, their yields would increase 20 to 30 percent, and an additional 150 million people annually could be fed. Women’s land tenure rights affect all levels of food security; countries where women lack land ownership rights have an average of 60 percent more malnourished children.

Increasing recognition of women’s land tenure in sustainable development and climate change mitigation has prompted many developing countries, including Ethiopia, Tanzania, and, most recently, Nepal, to adopt equal land and inheritance rights policies in their constitutions. Through ensuring proper land tenure for women, including rights to use, control, and transfer land and resources, communities can strengthen their overall food security, as well as build resilience critical to preventing the worst effects of climate change in the years to come.

Environmentally destructive agricultural practices, intensive and short term, increase with land insecurity and result in erosion and loss of soil nutrients. In contrast, smallholder farmers with land titles approach farming with a mid-to-long term business outlook, which incentivizes land conservation efforts. When a farmer is consistently threatened with the loss of her land, she is much less likely to invest in proper technologies and other necessities for practicing sustainable agriculture. Land rights enable smallholder farmers, especially women, to securely invest in sustainable agricultural production methods. Prompting purchases like improved inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, as well as investing in technologies like drip irrigation, raised beds, and greenhouses, land rights contribute to improved yields and better soil.

Influencing substantive policy change demands a holistic approach that unites formal top-down policies with bottom-up approaches. To do so means pressuring developing countries to enact land reform policies, while simultaneously supporting community-based projects that ensure the full weight of policies and gender equality are realized. Behavior change is critical; we can establish a strong foundation for sustainable climate-resilient development by prioritizing inclusive education and awareness campaigns that empower local communities and increase farmer access to information. Smallholder farmers will then be able to make investments to reduce carbon emissions when they are assured basic resources and assets. Land rights are a pathway out of poverty and a gateway to other rights.

Global conferences have a tendency to propose inspiring, yet unrealistic goals. In order to make the pact signed in Paris viable and valuable, the international community must not forget the role of agriculture, the importance of land rights, and the significance of gender equality. Otherwise, climate change’s irrevocable impact will be even more powerful.

Kimberly Flowers is director of the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lisa Bauer is a research intern with the CSIS Global Food Security Project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kimberly Flowers
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Humanitarian Agenda and Global Food and Water Security Program

Lisa Bauer