Back to search

The Scramble for Land Rights Reducing Inequity between Communities and Companies

Increasing global demand for natural resources is intensifying competition for land across the developing world, pushing companies onto territories that many Indigenous Peoples and rural communities have sustainably managed for generations. These communities, who collectively hold at least half the world’s land but legally own just 10 percent of land globally, are now racing to protect their land rights.

A comprehensive global review of how communities and companies formalize land rights, this report examines discrepancies in time and costs required to obtain formal land rights as well as the land size and rights ultimately granted to each in 15 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. It uncovers significant differences in the barriers that both groups face – disparities that give companies a clear advantage. Communities sacrifice years or even decades navigating unwieldy, expensive government processes that may force them to give up significant portions of their ancestral lands, while wealthy companies with strong political connections quickly secure rights to the same land.

The report sheds light on this uneven playing field between companies and communities, and recommends a more transparent path forward. It calls on countries to simplify overly complex procedures and amend steps that impose difficult, undue burdens on communities, while uniformly enforcing corporate land acquisition policies. Around the world, better conflict resolution mechanisms are needed to address competing third-party claims, and governments must also protect communities' right to free, prior and informed consent.

  • Community land, crucial to rural livelihood around the world, is increasingly targeted by commercial interests. Its loss can lead to environmental degradation, increased rural poverty and land disputes that last for years. Without formal legal recognition of their land rights, communities struggle to protect their land from being allocated to outside investors.
  • This report reveals endemic challenges facing communities across 15 countries. Procedures to register and document their customary land rights are complex, difficult and costly, requiring communities to sacrifice time, finances and customary land and resources.
  • As a result, it can take decades for communities to formalize their land rights. In the Philippines, the process requires 56 legally mandated steps; in Indonesia, 21 different government entities were involved.
  • In comparison, companies acquire formal land rights relatively quickly. Some companies take shortcuts to acquire land or begin commercial operations before obtaining final approvals. Few laws require foreign investors to engage in meaningful community consultation. This disadvantages more responsible companies and risks displacing communities.
  • To level the playing field between communities and companies, this report calls on countries to establish accessible and transparent community procedures that recognize all customary land, mitigate associated land conflicts, coordinate implementation and budgetary support for community land formalization, and better monitor company compliance.

land rights