It has become accepted wisdom that effective land governance is an unavoidable prerequisite for investment in the future and secure land tenure is the cornerstone of land governance.  It is seen as a pillar in the fight against poverty and a precondition for sustainable management of land.  If slum dwelling squatters fear being evicted at the whim of the state, why would they invest in improving their homes and neighborhoods beyond the bare minimum?  If poor farmers are at risk of being kicked off their land at any time, why would they invest in planting trees for which the benefit is far off in the future?  Having recognized the linkage between secure tenure, incentives, and investment for the future, development organizations such as the World Bank are keen on supporting countries in the global South to clarify property rights, develop cadasters, and issue titles.

Not so widely recognized is that the same logic can apply to land that is held in common.  Where land and other natural resources are held by communities—village forests, common pastures, artisanal reef fisheries and the like—security of communal tenure is crucial.  Without it, incentives for long term thinking wilt and the community institutions for managing these commons wither.  On the other hand, decades of research into commons has shown that when commons are secure, the community members who have rights to those commons can and do take actions to cooperate with each other in managing sustainably and investing in the future.  Unfortunately, thirty years after the ill-named “tragedy of the commons” idea was thoroughly refuted, ten years after Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize, the main association that most people have with the word commons is still that phrase: “the tragedy of the commons”.

But let me rant about that another day, because progress has been made and recognition that communities can effectively manage commons has grown and has influenced policy and legislation in some places.  For example, legal categories and legal systems that recognize communal tenure are being implemented in many countries.  Kenya passed its Community Land Act in 2016, Ethiopia is now rolling out a system of recognizing and certifying communal property rights in pastoralist communities, countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam have frameworks granting communal tenure rights to certain indigenous communities—the list goes on.

So, in places where the government has created and implemented systems for communal land tenure, is the struggle over?  Does secure land tenure—with an appropriate balance between private, state and communal tenure—equate to effective land governance?

The Use and Misuse of Hammers

A land tenure framework is a crucial governance mechanism within any land governance system, but it is only one mechanism; it is not a complete system.  Land tenure is a tool just as a hammer is a tool; it is not the whole tool box.

For some problems a hammer is not the right tool.  A hammer doesn’t help when what you need is screwdriver.  In pastoralist settings, for example, a vital challenge is how to maintain the well-tested system of institutional flexibility and opportunistic mobility that is an adaptation to the unpredictable spatio-temporal variability of dry rangeland ecosystems.  This variability is the defining characteristic of these rangelands, even more than their aridity.  The rain may fall in one place one year, and somewhere else another.  Even in years of above average rainfall, some parts of an arid region may experience a localized drought, and even in years of generalized drought, some areas may be far worse off than others, and some areas may even have a good amount of rainfall.  Pastoralist cultures have adapted to this year-to-year and place-to-place variability with a livelihood pattern that is based on mobility, institutions that embody flexibility, “communities” whose social boundaries are fuzzy, and norms that prize the right of access over the privilege of ownership.

This flexibility and mobility are constantly under threat, but clearly defined property rights to clearly delineated parcels of land assigned to clearly defined individuals or groups tends not to help reduce that threat.  If fact, it often worsens it.

Sometimes a hammer is the right tool but is used unskillfully.  You can use a hammer to build something strong, useful and beautiful, but you can also use it to hammer your own thumb.  For communal land tenure, some skill and care are needed in identifying what the “community” is, how to deal with land and resources that are shared among multiple communities, and how to create formal, legal recognition for indigenous tenure systems without trapping them in a stifling, bureaucratic maze that confounds effective management rather than enhancing it.

And sometimes a hammer can be deliberately misused.  Some people would use it not as a tool for building, but as a weapon for bashing someone else’s head, as when land tenure systems are designed in a way that empowers those who are already advantaged, opens up clear pathways for disenfranchisement and privatization of community or public resources, and facilitates elite capture or exclusion of ethnic minorities.

Other Tools for the Communal Land Governance Tool Box

Systems for recognizing, protecting and strengthening communal tenure rights, though becoming more common, are still too few, and where they do exist are too weak.  There is still a great need for more hammers, and better designed hammers.  But a hammer is not a complete tool box, and a communal tenure framework is not a complete land governance system.

Another tool for a well-equipped tool box is land use planning.  Land use planning is more flexible and adaptive than tenure.  Land use planning can also contribute to integration of interests and values across many parcels of land in a landscape or even a region.  This is something that a land tenure framework doesn’t directly help with.  For these reasons, land use planning is better suited to addressing some kinds problems than are land tenure frameworks.  The challenge in pastoral systems of managing at large scales and maintaining mobility and flexibility are prime examples.

On the other hand, because land use planning is more flexible than land tenure frameworks and also can incorporate interests and values expressed through negotiation, lobbying, or presentation of evidence, it is can also be more vulnerable to manipulation.  This is why it’s crucial to have a land governance system rather than just one kind of governance mechanism.  Secure land tenure and participatory land use planning can complement each other.

And because a land tenure framework—or a land use planning system, for that matter—can be misused, another component of any strategy for supporting effective and equitable communal land governance must be interventions that help to ensure that the most marginalized voices in any community are strengthened and granted a seat at the table.  These might be institutional interventions:  safeguards against elite capture built into the mechanisms of land tenure rules, for example.  And they might also include “soft” interventions such as capacity building for more marginalized segments of the population so that they are better able to represent themselves in communal governance systems.

The Community in Community Land Governance

For communal land and resources, a key component of a governance system that plays a role alongside a tenure framework and other mechanisms such as land use planning, is the community.  The community part of community land tenure often gets little attention from development and environmental organizations.

Perhaps this is a reaction against the frequent misuse of the concept of community.  Too often it is oversimplified and glosses over important differences of perspective, power and privilege within a community.  But community is, nevertheless, important.  Governance systems function best when there is trust, a strong degree of shared values, and a collective vision.  Those of us working to strengthen community governance systems need to look beyond simply the rules and the institutions, beyond the mechanics of the tenure system, and also see what we can contribute to strengthening the community in community tenure.  Doing so is not a case of promoting uniformity, but of finding ways to manifest interconnectedness, equity, and unity within the diversity that is found in any community.

When this happens, there is every likelihood that the hammer, and the screwdriver, and the other tools in the communal land governance tool box will be put to good use.