I’m sitting in a Mongolian yurt, listening to and trying to emulate Bataa’s* songs about love for the grasslands and the wide, treeless plains of the Mongolian Plateau. Our host sings with consuming passion. I might have brushed his enthusiasm off as a show two weeks ago. But after living and working in these grasslands, the feeling of freedom that comes from unobstructed, far-off distant horizon is infectious.
To these herders, the Inner Mongolian grasslands are a source of beauty and cultural identity. They are also where their sheep and goats graze, and thus the main source of livelihoods in these remote areas. The herders feel an innate responsibility to preserve the grasslands upon which they rely, but have also seen numerous and rapidly changing polices that affect their land rights.
According to Bataa and his neighbors, such changes in policy and property rights leave herders unsure whether they’ll continue to have the same rights they have now in the years to come. This leads to an inevitable “take what you can, when you can” approach that many suspect has been a contributor to grassland degradation in Inner Mongolia during recent decades.
People all over the world rely on the land for their livelihoods, and the decisions they make both directly and indirectly impact the land and everything on it, including the soil, forests, and wildlife. This relationship is the same for nomadic herders in Inner Mongolia, corn farmers in the United States, smallholder farmers in Kenya, subsistence farmers in Ethiopia, forest communities in Indonesia, and Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia.
The reality is that local landowners — and their actions — are things that the conservation community must work with, not around.
The factors that affect landholder decisions are central to most conservation strategies, but in our experience many strategies fail to consider who owns the land and how landholder rights affect human well-being and conservation outcomes.
To help assess this knowledge gap, we undertook an extensive review of the disparate evidence-base on land tenure security. Our results, recently published in Conservation Letters, articulate conditions and pathways under which conservation strategies may benefit, or be hindered by, land tenure security, and we articulate how human behavior under various conditions of land tenure security can vary.
We also highlight some key points and action items we believe are critical for integrating land tenure security considerations into conservation policies aiming to improve conservation and human well-being outcomes.
Land tenure form, property rights, and land tenure security are not the same. It’s important not to confuse them. Land rights are complex, and those that work on land issues now often distinguish the form of land tenure — private property, protected areas — from the property rights that make up one’s land tenure form, like the more specific right to extract resources. Going further, land tenure security is how secure one feels that their property rights will be upheld by those around them. Land tenure security can be a product of complicated colonial legacies, conflict, and power dynamics which can manifest in various ways, including women’s lack of rights to property.
Yet in the extensive literature we reviewed, we found no commonly adopted definition of land tenure security. So we instead set out to develop a conceptual framework for land tenure security that the conservation community can apply to their work — one where the pathways and uncertainties between a conservation intervention and the conservation and human well-being outcomes are clearly articulated.
We conceptualized land tenure security as fundamentally a landholders’ perception of the security of their rights. Understanding the factors that affect perceptions of tenure security is critical. We identified three driving factors: political economy, formal institutions, and informal institutions.
Conservation practitioners, in particular, should think carefully about how land tenure security (not just land rights) influences the probability of success of conservation programs. How might existing formal institutions, like the local governance capacity to enforce laws, affect how a conservation program is developed and implemented? How might informal institutions, or the existing power dynamics, affect the equity of conservation programs that incentivize landholder behaviors? If incentives are tied to the landholder, and women are excluded from owning land, will women benefit? These are just some of the questions linked to land tenure security that conservation practitioners should carefully consider in their programs.
There’s good evidence that secure land tenure helps support improvements in human well-being, but the evidence for conservation is mixed. This doesn’t mean land tenure security is not important for conservation. In our review, we found that land tenure security empowers landholders with agency over their land, but the choices they make may not always be aligned with conservation goals.
For example, providing herders in Inner Mongolia individual households rights over specific grazing plots gives them greater agency in planning and managing the grassland. But it also gives them the ability to sell or lease their land rights to open-pit mining companies, which opens a whole other host of conservation issues.
An important area of future research is understanding how to improve tenure security while also incentivizing landholders to be change agents for conservation on their own land. The reverse is also true — many conservation programs, like payment-for-ecosystem-services initiatives, rely on landholders’ rights being secure for ‘payments’ to work. Understanding how and when tenure security is an issue is also important to ensure longer term success of many conservation initiatives. It’s important to not assume that improving land tenure security alone will result in improved conservation outcomes.
The conservation community should always assess and plan for how the tenure security of a community will affect its conservation and human well-being goals. Planning or executing a conservation intervention without assessing land tenure security of the people on the land creates large risks — reputational, financial, and otherwise.
There are many drivers of tenure insecurity, and we provide a simple tool in our paper to help practitioners assess sources of tenure insecurity. There are numerous tools and methods for assessing land tenure security of a community of interest. A standard method is to use legal review, checking for formal recognition of rights by the state. Household surveys are also often used to ask community members about perceptions of land tenure security. These are simple, low-cost efforts that can pay large dividends when designing, planning, and implementing conservation programs.
It’s also important to think about ways to strengthen land tenure security. There are soft interventions, like information campaigns to raise awareness about existing rights. Other interventions are more formal, like land-titling programs, where landholders are provided assistance to gain formal title to their land. Still, the underlying governmental institutions must exist to recognize, uphold, and adjudicate these rights when needed.
Conservation practitioners often work directly with historically marginalized communities, including indigenous groups and pastoralists, and so they have an opportunity to increase or safeguard rights to increase human well-being and maximize conservation program success. Land tenure security is an important pathway for understanding equity challenges that are often intertwined with some of the biggest conservation problems.
As the conservation community strives to play a primary role in helping meet global sustainability agendas, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, it must carefully incorporate tenure security as a primary consideration because it affects people’s land use decisions, their welfare, and the biodiversity on the land. And we must be creative in experimenting and learning how strengthening land tenure security can be a lever for improving human well-being and conservation goals.
Lands managed by local people — from Bataa’s Inner Mongolian grasslands to the forests of Papua New Guinea — make up some of the most intact ecosystems on this planet. These forests, deserts, and grasslands are home to invaluable biodiversity, provide livelihoods for local people, and store carbon in their soils and trees. What happens on these lands affects more far more than just Bataa and his community.