World Environment Day: Reflections on land, youth and sustainable agriculture

Last month, our international community celebrated World Environment Day 2020. To mark the occasion, YILaA interviewed Amy Coughenour Betancourt, CEO at Cadasta Foundation, to discuss key issues related to land rights and how it relates to youth empowerment, environmental conservation, and the development of sustainable agriculture. This article summarizes some of the main points discussed with Amy as well as her recommendations for the  international community for improved land management practices in Africa, a mission shared by YILaA and Cadasta Foundation.

Written by Isalyne Gennaro

In 2014, the World Bank reported that only ten percent of occupied land in Africa was registered as formally documented. Moreover, land administration and services for aging and smallholder farmers are lacking all over the continent. With land tenure systems not reaching vulnerable people, communities’ claims to land are largely left undocumented. Furthermore, for many Africans under the age of 25, having access to adequate livelihoods and means of income is a challenge when their access to land for farming is limited. This is a critical issue not just for the economic development of Africa, but it affects global food security.

With most land transactions being determined by inheritance, young people face many barriers to accessing land. This hinders economic development by limiting sales and rental of land. Youth are often trapped in a vicious circle wherein there is a lack of resources and money to buy or rent land. Furthermore, customary land practices are cumbersome processes that often do not have any formal market mechanisms. However, there’s a lot of land in Africa that is not yet developed and the promise of vast opportunities for youth to work in agriculture as education levels improves.

While technology is not a panacea to Africa’s land administration problem, it definitely can contribute to the solution. The use of technology by communities from the bottom-up to document and secure land rights has been proven to make the process more efficient, transparent, and inclusive. This is what Cadasta Foundation has witnessed in their work with partners around the globe. From the state of Odisha in India to the rural areas of Mozambique, the Cadasta Platform is being used to capture boundaries and map land parcels while collecting critical household-level information so that geospatial and attribute data can facilitate government land administration services. Such data serves as the baseline to issue land right documents and ensure informed decision-making. One of the main impacts of the Mozambique experience is the streamlining of land administrative processes. This saves time and money. Previously, issuance of land right documents involved 14 very complicated steps that cost an estimated $400 to get a land title (or DUAT as they are called in Mozambique), By building up on geospatial data and maps at the community-level, the government can issue land titles in  a matter of  weeks, instead of years, while reducing costs from $400  to $30.

It is important to highlight that technology is the means, but community mobilization and participation is the key. With this approach, technology helps to enable farmers and improve access to information. The foundation’s bottom-up approach strengthens communities’ engagements around their own land documentation and management. 

Securing land tenure is not exclusively about getting a formal title. It encompasses various kinds of tenure arrangements, such as production certificates, occupancy certificates, customary occupancy certificates, and so on, particularly at the local government level or at the sub-national level. Cadasta Foundation engages at the community-level to support their incremental steps in the land formalization process. Often, around the world, the subnational government agencies, such as district authorities, have the authority to allocate and manage land. However the human, technological, and financial resources lie somewhere else. Through their work, Cadasta develops solutions to secure land rights across the land rights continuum by engaging with civil society, government, and private sector actors. The following set of insights and recommendations stem from Cadasta’s experience, as expressed by the CEO Amy Coughenour.

  1. Data is empowering.

The experience of Cadasta Foundation in Mozambique focuses on livelihoods and production around conservation areas. The lack of data at the granular level across land issues, land administration, land tenure, and conservation is an important issue. However, capturing geospatial and digital information or data on communities, production, natural resources, and land use can benefit the communities in multiple ways. For example, such data can serve as a baseline to create land use management plans, forest management plans, or to define natural resource agreements with stakeholders in the communities. A digital map helps to understand the nature of its community, identifying the location of conflicts or access to resources. This is necessary to empower communities, ensure informed decision-making processes, and defuse some of the conflicts. 

  • Together, youth and technology can combat climate change, support the environment, and lead the agricultural sector.

Cadasta Foundation is leveraging the energy and desire of the youth to work on environmental issues and land matters. African youth are empowering and organizing themselves through a multitude of cooperatives and associations. Such voices are easier to integrate in the governance structure to influence land allocation and natural resource management practices and local development plans. This involvement is crucial to youth empowerment. Moreover, youth are also willing to engage and utilize technology. Cadasta Foundation leverages these opportunities and brings in youth data collectors, community mappers, household-level enumerators and more. The organization trains the local youth in the door-to-door collection of personal data using its GPS-enabled mobile applications. The youth are doing more than just leveraging technology for data collection, but they are often leading the conversation and debate on climate change in their communities. Furthermore,  youth are desperately needed in the African agricultural cooperatives movement as the need for leadership roles increases. More than involving youth in development projects, Youth need to feel empowered to use their power and voice, says Amy Coughenour.

  • Sustainable agriculture as part of the environment protection and climate change agenda.

As Amy Coughenour defines it, sustainable agriculture is a system of farming that focuses on long-term crop, agricultural, and animal production with minimal impacts on the environment. The key word here is “long-term”. We too often hear the story of decreasing quality of soil. In some areas, that’s not a sign for the need to rethink the agricultural practices, it is an indicator that action is needed now. But this does not imply that we should implement immediate remedies. Rather, we need to understand how systems of farming work, and take a longer view toward protecting the environment. This includes empowering farmers not just with information about climate-smart agriculture but also land tenure security,as there is a positive correlation between land ownership and conservation practices. Research shows that farmers having documented land rights are more likely to invest and spend twice as many hours in endeavours of conserving their land’s water and soil. 

The World Environment Day 2020 is a reminder that land tenure security plays an important role in environment conservation and the international Sustainable Development Goal framework. It also reminds us that to do so, we must not  leave vulnerable communities behind. We need to enable the African youth by using the right tools and technology, so that young people benefit from and contribute to improved land management systems. The World Environment Day 2020 also marked the joining of Cadasta Foundation to the largest international coalition of US-based NGOs: InterActions Climate Compact. Climate change is a core issue that the coalition integrates as part of its programming and advocacy. The coalition looks at organizations that work on the ground, in partnerships and through engagement. It sets up and revises annual goals collectively. In this framework, Cadasta Foundation is able to align its mission as a land rights organization for advancing land tenure security for vulnerable communities around the world.

The authors of this long-form blog post would like to thank Amy Coughenour Betancourt for her precious collaboration and her colleague Madaleine Weber for her help in writing this piece.


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