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From Colourful Boxes to Matters of the Gut: How the SDGs Can Impact Local Land Monitoring

Friday, September 22, 2017

Last month, nearly two dozen land monitoring experts convened in West Java to contribute to the development of the International Land Coalition’s (ILC) Dashboard, a people-centred monitoring tool that will measure progress on land governance through a set of globally agreed-upon indicators.

Some of the questions they set out to answer: What are the best indicators of land governance? How can we make them both universal and adaptable? What sources of data can feed them?

The Dashboard, a land governance index based on member-driven indicators and fed by community-generated data, is positioning itself to amplify local land monitoring initiatives and complement existing global frameworks. Currently under consultation, it will be piloted in 2018.

From Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, members around the table described their current monitoring efforts: documenting the transfer of public land to women, securing tenure rights of forest communities, and building participatory maps for indigenous communities.

Their monitoring work is inherently local, tailored to domestic laws, geographies and political contexts. This prompted another question: Can global frameworks such as the Dashboard, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGTs), or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play a role in promoting land rights on the national, or even local level?

The answer, with some qualification, was unanimous: Yes, more than playing a role, global frameworks are crucial to pushing the land rights agenda. In some cases, they’re already making a difference.


In Indonesia, the work of the Indonesian Institute for Forest and Environment, known as RMI, is helping indigenous communities in and around forests to gain recognition and rights to their land. They rely on official data, divided between two ministries, though their monitoring is often limited by its availability.

“You can see many things [in the official data], like places where land transactions are being negotiated, but we are not sure if it’s really accurate,” said Mardha Tillah, a land monitoring expert with RMI. “We have tried many times to send requests to the land agency here at the district level, asking for information on permits, etc. and it just never happens.”

Their response has been to work with other civil-society organizations (CSOs) to collect their own, alternative data from the communities where they work.

“Now, the Ministry of Forest and Environment calls us to ask for verification of things that happen on the ground,” Tillah said, “and at some point the government could no longer deny the data we collect on the ground because it was done in a participatory way.”

[Mardha Tillah, RMI]

While the nature of their work is local, Tillah believes that the SDGs could serve to improve dialogue around crucial issues confronting the country.

In fact, they already have: in terms of gender awareness, she said, the SDGs have successfully put women’s rights on the national agenda and specific language has been added to policies.

“After the SDGs, all the ministries have these colorful boxes everywhere and everyone starts talking about this – they give presentations about this and they start to frame their work according to these boxes,” Tillah said.

Now, she said, the same thing needs to happen for land. “If at the global level, land rights are put on the government’s agenda, marginalised communities could have a chance.”


In Bangladesh, ILC member the Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD) is tracking the distribution of public lands with a focus to land access by women.

Specifically, explains Rowshan Jahan, a land monitoring specialist with ALRD, the organisation monitors the distribution of khas land ­– public land that emerges from the river – that, once verified, enters into a distribution process to the country’s landless.

By law, women and men should have joint ownership of such land, though in practice access by women has been limited. In recent years, Jahan adds, public land has been increasingly sold to industry.

“There is a policy, there is a framework, and following all of this, landless women should benefit,” said Jahan. “But as it happens, if there’s land available it is grabbed or occupied by local elites, those with political influence or muscles.”

As an association, ALRD has been monitoring land grabbing and the distribution of khas land throughout the country.

[Rowshan Jahan Moni, ALRD]

The role of the SDGs and other global frameworks in this process cannot be underestimated, Jahan emphasised. The ALRD already references SDG goals and indicators in their work – specifically 1.4.2 and 5.a.1.

“These [indicators] are linked to land, and in Bangladesh as in many other countries, land is not only the source of livelihood,” Jahan said. “It is the means of empowerment, identity, and inclusiveness.”

As Bangladesh aspires to be a middle-income country by 2030, the government has begun implementing the SDGs as a framework. The related global indicators, Jahan hopes, will outlast the administration and serve to guide public policy.

Here, Jahan sees an opportunity to integrate the ongoing, people-centred work of their members, who have long-standing monitoring initiatives across the country.

“There is either no [official] data or the data is not reliable or quite old, so we have to base it on other sources,” she said. “That is the challenge, what are the sources we can use and what is their capacity – with what we have been doing up until now, this will enable us to do more.”


For Dave de Vera, a veteran land monitoring expert working with the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development, PAFID, the success of global frameworks such as the SDGs, VGGTs, or the Dashboard, must start at the local level.

His organisation generates participatory maps and spatial data that have been fundamental to securing the land rights of indigenous communities in the Philippines. Now, they have expanded their work across Southeast Asia.

“Essentially, the government says you don’t exist, you don’t have rights ­– so [communities] came to us and said, we want you to help us show that we exist and that we have livelihoods and that we would be affected,” de Vera said. “Now, the quality of our data is very high – we are quite specialised.”

[Dave de Vera, PAFID]

The spatial data collected by PAFID, de Vera underlined, could feed into global indicators such as those put forth by the SDGs and the Dashboard.

“Land is something that cuts across all the problems that [indigenous communities] are worried about, and when you talk about land, you cannot do it without spatial data,” said de Vera. When data is created in a participatory manner, he added, it becomes their own. “I ask them, can you draw the villages – can you draw a line around those that still adopt traditional leaders as conciliators for conflict?” he said. “That’s measurable.”

For this reason, he added, in order for global frameworks like the SDGs or the Dashboard to find local buy-in, they must remain relevant to local processes.

“The context is so international and macro, that people can have a difficult time understanding how useful it would be to something that hits their gut every day,” he said, and this is the work that lies ahead: the building of that “very crucial bridge linking the two worlds.”


Writer: Eva Hershaw


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