Local community is a traditional collectivity with a range of powers covering a certain geographical area and an autonomous management structure.
The ability of the Embera villages in Panama to shut off the road into their community, and to exclude outsiders, is based in large measure on the government’s official recognition of their indigenous collective land rights.
The global conservation community now faces the added challenge of Covid-19 on top of a longstanding set of complex conservation, sustainability, and development challenges. In the wake of this pandemic, return to business as usual is not a viable option. The existing systems and structures upon which conservation is based must evolve. Climate change, biodiversity conservation, and poverty elimination efforts have been further complicated by Covid-19, with the brunt of the pandemic borne most acutely by the poorest and most vulnerable.
Latin America’s indigenous and Afro-descendant communities are facing not just one pandemic, but three. Women bear the brunt of them all, which threatens communities’ very survival.
“It's hard to find the right life partner in my soum (district). Most of the girls went to school, then to university in the city. Not many of them are good at herding.”
Like most young women who grew up in the city, I usually think of herders as quiet men with closed faces that are wrinkled and burnt by the sun. Khuukhenduu Naranbold is quite the opposite. He is smooth-skinned with an open face and a big smile. Even though he is only 23 years old, he is self-confident and keen to talk.
Khuukhenduu’s comments about marriage and herding were recorded in 2016 at the beginning of a five-year action research project on women’s land tenure security, called WOLTS. The project has focused on pastoralist communities affected by mining, and has involved repeated visits and evidence gathering in several communities in Mongolia and Tanzania. I have been a part of the WOLTS team since June 2016.
Khuukhenduu comes from Dalanjargalan in the Gobi Desert – an area of Mongolia where the traditional herding lifestyle is under threat, not only from mining but also because many young herder men are struggling to marry. This is because boys, especially in herding families, are expected to look after the family’s animals, while girls are more likely to finish school and go to university. Once the girls leave to study in the city, few want to return to the harsh herding lifestyle.
Although it is difficult to find a partner, Khuukhenduu is not unhappy. He is a keen horseman and very proud of his riding skills. He is a member of the Mongolian Federation of Horse Racing and Trainers, and he loves racing. Unlike most other herders, who have adopted Chinese motorcycles and modern clothes, he still herds his animals on horseback and often wears a beautiful red deel (traditional costume).
However the nomadic herding life is difficult, and, although he lives in his own ger (traditional felted tent), Khuukhenduu stays close to his parents so that taking care of animals can be shared. At the same time, he uses social media to keep in touch with his school friends – and with girls.
This contrast between tradition and modern technology illustrates the tensions and rapid changes taking place in today’s herding lifestyle. Khuukhenduu has profound knowledge of nature and how to successfully make a living from the land. He also embraces the internet, and was an eager participant in our WOLTS training programme this year on gender, land rights and the law.
In his small community in Dalanjargalan, Khuukhenduu is already well known. Although he does not have high academic qualifications, he is a skilled manager who knows how to maintain pastureland and raise quality livestock. He is also a confident speaker and a natural leader, so it is not surprising that older participants in the WOLTS programme selected him to become a community champion on gender and land. In some ways in his everyday life he is just like a CEO – taking responsibility, always having to think about the future and plan for both the good times and the bad, while constantly carrying out a whole range of highly skilled herding activities.
Mongolian masculinity is celebrated in July every year in the Naadam festival of the three ‘manly sports’ of horse riding, wrestling and archery. Khuukhenduu is a participant and fierce competitor in Naadam games – especially horse racing. But his skills, grounded in the country’s herding traditions, will be lost unless the country and the government support nomadic families to thrive.
I often worry that our country does not put sufficient value on the traditional knowledge and skills of herding people. If the herders go, Mongolia will lose centuries of experience in sustainable land and animal management. If Khuukhenduu struggles to marry and raise a family, what hope is there for other young herders?
The herding life is not for everyone, but I know that city life also has its problems. I also realise that knowledge often comes from life’s experiences, not only from books and university. As Mongolia looks for ways to develop new industries we need to remember our proud nomadic heritage and make sure we protect herders’ land rights, not only to support tourism but – most importantly – as the foundation for so many Mongolian families’ lives. As trained and respected community champions, thoughtful young leaders like Khuukhenduu are the very people who offer us hope for the future.
Anna Letaiko is a middle-aged woman with a soft voice that carries wisdom and strength. Her husband is an older man, and together they live in small mud house in Mundarara – a remote village in Longido district in Tanzania, accessible only by a rough dirt road. It is a Maasai community similar to the one in which I grew up, except that the community’s livelihood is based on mining and pastoralism while my community still depends on farming and pastoralism.
I met Anna through my work with WOLTS – a five-year action research project on women’s land rights in pastoral communities that are affected by mining. As a speaker of the Maasai language, my job is to facilitate and translate in training sessions and help develop training materials.
In Maasai culture, it is very rare for women to own land. Men see themselves as owning land on behalf of the whole family. If women do apply for land, they usually apply in the name of their husband or son.
However, the law in Tanzania (Land Act, 1999, and Village Land Act, 1999) grants women and men the same rights to land access, ownership and control. The law also says that women have the same rights in decision-making over land. What Maasai customs mean in practice is that women are denied the right to apply for land and own it themselves.
During our research we heard that, when women in Mundarara applied for land in their own names, their applications were ignored, not taken seriously, and even thrown away. Some women were even asked for sex in exchange for land documents.
Our aim through the WOLTS project is to support the community to find their own solutions to land rights problems. To help them achieve this, we asked them to select community ‘champions’ who would be trained in land rights, mining laws, investment laws, mineral valuation and legal procedures for licence applications, as well as gender-based violence.
Anna was one of the first champions to be trained in Mundarara. When we first started working in the community, Anna did not even know that she had the right to own land. After the WOLTS training sessions, she put in an application, and it was taken seriously.
A few months later, Anna received a small plot near the village centre where she wants to build a modern house. As a trained champion for gender equity, she has promised to help other women by raising awareness and assisting them to become land owners like herself.
The growth of artisanal mining in Mundarara has brought many changes to the community, including giving families new sources of income. Women are finding that they have more opportunities to earn money and participate in community and family decision-making, including through land ownership.
Documenting and sharing Anna Letaiko’s story reminded me how quickly life is changing in pastoral districts due to factors like mining. I hope it will inspire readers, raise the voices of less fortunate groups, and improve everyday life in communities similar to my own.
This is a special Earth Day Op-Ed by Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and Michael Taylor, the Director of the International Land Coalition Secretariat.
Joren Verbist is a third-year undergraduate student undertaking a major in International land- and water management at the University of Wageningen (WUR). He is also currently carrying out an internship at the International Centre of Agriculture Research Dryland Areas (ICARDA), in Amman, Jordan. The below blog details some of his experiences, as well as preliminary information on his research.
As a Swahili speaker from Tanzania, I have not often had the opportunity to meet or work with people from remote Maasai communities. However, I recently visited the villages of Naisinyai and Mundarara in the north of the country as part of a global research project on women’s land rights in pastoral communities affected by mining (the WOLTS project).