Disputes over rural property rights – which undermine the rights and livelihoods of up to 2.5 billion people – have intensified in recent years as investors and corporations, encouraged by governments, have pushed into increasingly remote rural areas, seeking land for agribusiness, oil and gas exploration, infrastructure, and renewables. The resulting conflicts over land have often wrought havoc on communities and hindered progress towards sustainable economic development. Indigenous Peoples and local communities face increasing levels of violence for resisting these projects or simply for living on land desired by others. And when local elites and governments sign away local people’s land for development, research shows that the quagmire of work stoppages, delays, and conflicts that ensues can increase the cost of doing business by as much as 29 times.
Forward-thinking companies and investors increasingly recognize the costs and risks that stem from a failure to respect community land rights and are also feeling the pressure from advocacy groups. In response, companies such as Nestlé, Cargill, Illovo Sugar, PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever have committed to implementing the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure (VGGT). Making good on these commitments, however, requires navigating complex local realities and sprawling global supply chains. Key actors in the private sector note that addressing tenure issues has proved arduous—far more so, for instance, than in implementing environmental commitments.
Disputes over rural property rights – which undermine the rights and livelihoods of up to 2.5 billion people – have intensified in recent years as investors and corporations, encouraged by governments, have pushed into increasingly remote rural areas, seeking land for agribusiness, oil and gas exploration, infrastructure, and renewables.
These challenges have prompted a rethink on how best donor assistance can be used to leverage private sector support for community land rights. In 2013, RRI piloted a “pre-competitive safe space” where an informal group of leaders from progressive companies, investors, NGOs, and Indigenous Peoples organizations could share their views, interests, and agendas with a view towards finding common solutions to the problem of insecure community land rights. The hope was that these actors would eventually develop enough to be able to jointly find solutions and pro-actively leverage changes in practice by governments and local companies.
This innovation, now named the Interlaken Group, has raised hopes of better private sector performance on land rights. Co-chaired by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), the Group has expanded to include leaders from Nestlé, Oxfam, Olam, Unilever, Stora Enso, CDC, the European Investment Bank, and other DFIs, as well as a host of civil society organizations. It has catalysed the development of new due diligence tools that members have used to screen their investments and explore new business models: for example, Nestlé used guidance produced by the Interlaken Group on corporate implementation of the VGGT to assess the performance of its palm oil suppliers in Indonesia, while civil society groups in Laos used this guidance to develop a set of voluntary commitments to guide agricultural investment.
In early 2017, the Interlaken Group initiated a new phase of experimentation, testing the power of its global brands and purchasing power to advance local company and government action to respect local land rights within developing countries themselves, starting with piloting pre-competitive networks at the country level in Kenya and Cameroon. The companies convened at these two pilot meetings collectively account for more than US$1 billion in investments and half a million hectares of concessions. That these companies engaged in the process, and requested follow-up activities, underscored the Interlaken Group’s potential to foster widespread transformation at country and sector levels. The Interlaken Group plans to follow-up in Kenya and Cameroon and further develop this model in other pilot countries from 2017 forward.
Much more remains to be done to extend the power of secure property rights to Indigenous Peoples and local communities in the world’s rural areas. But so far the Interlaken Group is showing promise as a way to help forward-leaning companies and investors achieve their commitments, and become more positive and pro-active players in this battle. Scaling-up this effort should be a priority in advancing peace and prosperity in rural areas – development goals that civil society, the private sector, and local communities all aspire to achieve.