THE BLOG
09/19/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Deaths in Peru Show the Need to Protect Land Rights of Local Communities

Earlier this month, indigenous activist Edwin Chota and three Asháninka community leaders were murdered as they tried to stop illegal logging in the Peruvian Amazon. While the killers have not yet been caught, a statement by the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon firmly lays the blame at the door of the Peruvian Government for its failure to protect the land rights of indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, this problem is by no means limited to Peru. Poor communities in many countries around the world are being kicked off their land, often to be replaced by large agri-business projects that cause environmental damage and bring little or no benefits to the local area.

ActionAid is currently working with communities in Guatemala, Mozambique, Senegal and Tanzania to protect their rights to land. It's not that we're against economic development, but these projects need to respect the rights of the communities that already occupy the land. People who have lived there sustainably for generations can't be cast aside and forced to move elsewhere, just because an investor arrives with promises of a lucrative project.

People's rights getting in the way of progress?

Global demand for land is only increasing. We're seeking ways to feed the world's growing population and many countries are also trying to reduce their reliance on foreign oil by burning food as fuel. Rather than reducing emissions, these biofuels often end up producing more carbon dioxide than their fossil fuel equivalents, as the way that the land is used is changed. But by recognizing indigenous and community land rights, governments can go some way towards tackling a number of these problems.

Studies have shown that recognizing land rights can enhance food security and help mitigate climate change. Knowing that their rights to land are protected, small-scale farmers are far more likely to make the investments that will increase their long-term production and grow their income, while working together to protect the natural resources they rely on.

Most governments have accepted this and have been playing an active role over the last year in the negotiations for Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) that have been taking place at the United Nations' Committee on Food Security in Rome. These negotiations aim to provide a set of principles that govern agricultural investment. These principles emphasize the importance of supporting the investments of small-scale food producers, and provide a set of common standards that governments can apply to large-scale investments.

The US and Canadian Governments have a key role to play in providing leadership to recognize community land rights. Both have endorsed the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes a key provision that indigenous peoples have the right to give or withhold "Free, Prior and Informed Consent" on projects affecting their communities.

The Canadian Government is stalling

But it now seems like the Canadian Government is attempting to back out of its commitment, perhaps in response to the activities of their mining and extractive industries, which are affecting indigenous communities in many countries such as Guatemala.

Canada is the only country that is trying to block the inclusion of the right to Free Prior and Informed Consent in the principles. In doing so, it risks watering down the investment principles in such a way that they will not do the job that they were designed to do, when approved next month.

At the UN Climate Summit in New York next week, civil society organizations will be meeting with the chair of the UN Committee on World Security, Gerda Verburg, to deliver the message that indigenous rights cannot be compromised and community land rights must be protected.

The United States has agreed that language on Free, Prior and Informed Consent must be included in the RAI principles and now needs to pressure its close ally, Canada, to stop jeopardizing this process.

Community land rights are crucial for the safety of the Asháninka and many other communities around the world. Our governments must make sure that communities' rights are respected so that they can work their land and raise their families free from the threat of violence.