Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Home, My Farm: How Stable Land Tenure Makes Farming More Sustainable

Mine. It’s one word, yet it can mean everything to someone who is farming a piece of land. If the land is not yours, why protect its integrity for future generations? In the Philippines, decades of research and practice in community forestry has shown that people who have secure land tenure are more likely to manage land in a way that protects plants, animals, water and soil.

In the Philippines, more than half of the population makes its living off the land. The nation’s forests have been heavily logged, and less than ten percent of primary forest remains. Pushed out of the fertile lowlands, many people farm in sensitive upland areas – areas that are owned by the government. When population pressure and human need presses on the land base, stressing the soil and water to capacity, it’s tempting to say, “Enough!” Enough use of the land – it must be protected. It must be protected to stop people from damaging the land for future generations, to preserve soil fertility, to conserve water and prevent flash floods. However, saying “Keep Out” in words or in law is not enough to stop people from living in an area. Unfortunately, when protection means that governments place usage restrictions on an area that is already inhabited, protection often leads to ecological disaster.

Stripped of the right to live off the land, farmers have no incentive to be conservationists. When your livelihood is threatened and you may be removed from your land tomorrow, why not take all you can today? Farmers need a place to create subsistence and small-scale farms so that they can feed their families and perhaps even run a small business off any surplus. The government wants assurances that the integrity of the land will be protected. Ironically, giving farmers stable and consistent access to this land through tenure is one way to protect it. In the Philippines, the government has granted land tenure in some protected areas – tenure agreements that last over a generation. These 25-year stewardship contracts are one element in a new wave of community-based social forestry that has swept the Philippines in the last few decades. Gradually, social forestry is working to make the use of upland areas more sustainable.

Land tenure doesn’t need to mean land ownership. It simply means that an individual or a family has an assurance that they will be able to use the land over time. This means that people feel more comfortable treating the land as an investment. Why bother planting fruit trees when you may not be there when the fruit ripens? When people have the right to stay on their land, they work to use it more sustainably. Creating changes in farming practices is a long-term endeavor, and by granting tenure to small farmers in protected areas, governments can give people who live off the land the opportunity to invest in that land over the generations.

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