Choosing Short-Cut Development Over Rights and Equality?

timber, palm oil, rights, tenure, natural resourcesClear land tenure and rights to natural resources are generally prerequisites to successfully implementing integrated landscape approaches, in which these structures enable a long-term view of managing land to sustain people and nature. As the week comes to a close, Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque and Madiha Qureshi (Rights and Resources Initiative) discuss this topic, which is of critical importance both to the lives of indigenous peoples who depend on the land and the long-term sustainable use of natural resources. Following on the heels of the State of Rights and Resources event last week, the authors outline some of the challenges and next steps for countries to move to both achieve economic development while honoring the rights of local people.

As President Obama told an audience in Rangoon in November 2012, heralding Myanmar’s opening up to the Western world, “Reforms must ensure that the people of this nation can have that most fundamental of possessions – the right to own title to the land on which you live and on which you work.”  The question is: will those rights be upheld as global capital rushes in to this vulnerable democracy, driven by hungry investors and rising global demand?

In 2012, this key choice loomed large, not just for Myanmar but for many countries of the developing world: Would they choose a development path built on respect for their citizens’ rights, or would they instead opt to hand over their communities’ land and natural resources to international investors and national elites? Countries that have faced chronic and crippling underdevelopment in the recent decades appear desperate to replicate the recent economic successes of China and Brazil. But where Brazil, China, and other Asian “Tigers” drove economic development by liberating local enterprise and establishing local property rights, many of these other nations are selling their citizens’ political and economic futures in exchange for the illusion of rapid development.

The inequalities resulting from these choices maintain the risk of the “resource curse,” in which few benefit from economic growth while the majority of the country remains trapped in poverty, sowing the seeds for internal conflict and political turmoil. Research shows that going forward, they can avoid this fate only if they choose open and inclusive democratic systems—and that means first developing strong civil societies that recognize local property rights, keep citizens informed, and hold leaders to account before negotiating the sale of their country’s critical resources.

According to recent analysis by The Rights and Resources Initiative—Landowners or Laborers: What choice will developing countries make?—Liberia is a test bed for many of the choices that have come to characterize the dilemma of this “short-cut development”. On one hand, it has made significant progress in reforming its existing land tenure rights system, a key component of the country’s post-civil war peace-building platform. On the other hand, its government has chosen to revive its economy through expanding commercial resource extraction, particularly minerals and timber, and plantation agriculture. Despite government and investors’ promises, the takeover of Liberia’s land and resources by foreign investors has not brought prosperity. In fact, there are strong indicators that this short-sighted recipe for development is actually creating new conflicts and dispossessing its already impoverished population.

Liberian President and 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s choice holds enormous global significance, as she is one of the co-chairs of the group drawing up plans for the post-2015 development goals.  Choosing to ignore local resource rights at home does not bode well for the priorities of the next global development road-map.

A robust panel discussion, moderated by journalist Fred Pearce last week in London, grappled with the consequences of these choices. Experts in land tenure rights in Asia, Africa and Latin America explored what governments, civil society, and the private sector must do in 2013 to address the ongoing risk of resource-fueled turmoil. The vital question posed to the panel—and to world leaders—was ultimately this: will countries around the developing world become societies of citizen landowners, or landless laborers? Watch the discussion here.

Have a response to Alexandre and Madiha, or an example you want to share? Leave a comment below!

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