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On the Environment

Thursday, February 12, 2015
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Land Tenure and Sustainable Agriculture

By Guest Author, Elias Kohn, F&ES '16

As I described on this blog two weeks agoAgroforestry offers numerous social and environmental benefits. Unfortunately, broad implementation faces restrictions, such as the challenges of secure land tenure (as described in last weeks posting). Three current strategies to conquer this problem include constructing clearer legal definitions of agroforestry, honoring multiple land ownership models, and refocusing project funding, especially international climate mitigation financing.           

Agroforestry blurs elements of forestry and agriculture, sometimes landing in a gray zone in between. This can make agroforestry practices difficult to recognize and define. Without clear definitions, promoting land tenure policies or tax exemptions for agroforestry practitioners is also a challenge. This is motivating community groups and government agencies to establish clearer definitions. The USDA, for example, recently put a working definition of agroforestry into official guidance. As different agencies within the US develop programs, the USDA guidance can become a reference point that provides a framework for future legal development and eventual incentives and protection for agroforestry project development.

This is a stepping stone for additional policy improvements and “another piece of the policy puzzle coming together to support agroforestry” says Kate MacFarland of the USDA Agroforestry Center.

A second approach to land tenure challenges involves pooling land under a public domain and then granting community access that is secure for the long term. One example is how local agencies in Indonesia encourage community forestry, such as the Hutan Desa, “village forest,” that is regulated through customary law. In this model, water from the forest is shared, the core area of the forest cannot be harvested, and the village cooperatively protects the forest to enhance communal flood resiliency. The secured land, protected through policies and customary enforcement, provides the land tenure security that appears helpful for agroforestry practices.

Long-term land access, even without legal ownership, can combat land tenure obstacles. In 2006, Peru enacted Law 28852, which holds the potential to grant concessions for  “reforestation and agroforestry” for up to 60 years. Such a long time scale solves many of the concerns that food producers have expressed (see the previous post in this series for some interviews with producers). Law 28852 has been met with high controversy, however, due to possible unintended consequences. A key aspect of the controversy relates back to the need for functional definitions; specifically, there is not a clear enough definition of what constitutes a forest. The problems are multifaceted, just as these solutions are complex and interconnected.

A third approach to improve land tenure is to refocus funding. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is a United Nations financial incentive program to reduce carbon emissions from forests in developing countries. Some REDD+ projects are controversial in Peru, for example, where critics accuse them of threatening indigenous peoples’ use of landand potentially undermining climate change mitigation. A refocused approach would cut out plantations, biofuels, or other large-scale agriculture projects within REDD+, and shift investment towards projects that establish local land tenure rights that fit within REDD+ goals. If the hypothesis that secure land tenure can promote agroforestry and climate smart land management is correct, then incentives that promote local land tenure could be a primary focus of redirected funds. Those projects might then naturally migrate towards long-term land management strategies such as agroforestry.

Agroforestry offers multiple benefits ranging from the social, economic, and the purely environmental. Similarly, by addressing policy restrictions such as land tenure, and by addressing land tenure in a manner that promotes community level decision-making and control, that course of action creates benefits outside of the actual agroforestry implementation.

A continual thought over the last few weeks, reoccurring when I crossed the Benjamin Franklin bridge in Philadelphia, or saw Manhattan’s skyscrapers from Coney Island, is the profound skill humans have to design and build. Now, it seems imperative to employ these skills to design ecological systems that also provide human needs. To make these systems accessible and maneuverable, like elevators rising effortlessly in the tallest of those skyscrapers, the policy tools and local governance structures require similar design skills and implementation. This task is especially suited for the individuals that inform legal and policy decisions.

Posted in: Innovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Law & Governance

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