In 2014, in a remote corner of the Peruvian Amazon, an indigenous community called Santa Clara de Uchunya realized that someone was cutting down trees on their ancestral land–and then learned that a palm oil company had acquired the rights to a chunk of the community’s forest. The community is now struggling to get formal legal title to land it has lived on for generations.
A new report on land rights from the nonprofit World Resources Institute outlines the global challenges with unequal land rights. It’s hard for indigenous groups to get legal rights to their land, though companies can often sail through the process. A GIF illustrates one example of the basic problem, and an infographic details the full process for both companies and communities.
In Indonesia, if a company wants to plant a palm plantation–making oil used in everything from toothpaste and shampoo to peanut butter and chocolate–obtaining the necessary permits can take three to five years (assuming the company waits for legal permission). For an indigenous community, gaining legal rights can take as long as 15 years, navigating through a process that involves 21 different government entities. To formalize land, communities often have to give up rights to some of the resources on the land.
When communities lose their land to make way for cattle ranching or gold mining or natural gas production, community members often end up living in poverty. There are also global implications: If swaths of forests that were well-managed are suddenly logged, the world loses part of a solution for sucking up CO2 emissions. Palm oil plantations cover 14 million hectares in Indonesia; indigenous groups have formal rights to only about 20,000 hectares. The report argues that countries need to set up fairer systems to level the playing field.
“Governments must take a hard look at how their land rights policies favor companies, especially those that clear forests, burn carbon-rich peatland or otherwise exhaust natural resources, over indigenous communities who have long protected the world’s forests,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, says in a World Resources Institute press release.