To solve the climate crisis, women must own more of the world’s land

Land, women, and climate change: the future of all three are intrinsically connected and must be addressed comprehensively to create equitable change and a livable future. Women, particularly Indigenous women, play a fundamental part in a community’s ability to sustainably manage, protect, and steward forests, which is much-needed to reduce the ever-increasing risks of degradation and loss. If women’s rights to land are not recognized or are insecure due to unjust (and often patriarchal) legal devices, the entire community’s ability to steward that land is at risk, and exposed to all sorts of challenges. 

Barriers to Land Ownership for Women

Land is a symbol of power and historically, of control. Land rights still greatly affect a person’s social status, political power, and access to economic opportunity. Owning land can often lead to further opportunities, like educational programs, financial services, and health care. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has declared women’s rights to land and natural resources as “fundamental human rights.Emerging evidence from Landesa suggests that “when women have secure land rights, efforts to tackle climate change are more successful, and responsibilities and benefits associated with climate change response programs are more equitably distributed.” 

Only 15% of land in the world is owned by women. Time Magazine reports that the odds are stacked against women when it comes to state regulations administering banking and land ownership – banks will often refuse women who ask for loans that use their land or future crops as collateral when male family members hold the title for land ownership. When women can’t get loans from trusted institutions, they go to private and often corrupt lenders who charge higher interest rates, risking their financial health. 

Climate XChange spoke with Beth Roberts, the Center for Women’s Land Rights Program Manager and one of Landesa’s leading experts on both gender and climate change, on the relationship between women, power, land, and climate. Roberts is a law, policy, and gender specialist who works to strengthen gender-equal and socially inclusive rights to land and productive assets. She provides legal and policy recommendations to government decision-makers, traditional authorities, civil society partners, and international human rights and climate change bodies; conducts consultations and assessments with rural communities; and works to collaborate with, strengthen, and expand the network of practitioners focused on gender and natural resource justice worldwide. 

According to Roberts, the reasons why women own so little land across the globe is largely tied to patriarchal systems, laws, and structures. “If you look at the history of gender inequality and land ownership, women are still considered cattle in much of the world. Even if that is not explicit, that is still enshrined in even legal systems and certainly in practice,” she said. According to Roberts, the relationship between women and land has been very much tied to their secondary status as women. 

Roberts says that for a woman to own land, she must overcome not only legal barriers, but also implementation barriers and social norms, which are all very powerful. There are still legal barriers to women’s inheritance and women’s marital property in over half the world’s countries. Even when laws are favorable, the implementation of those laws often do not reach rural areas where women are more dependent on land. 

“Those norms take different shapes in different contexts, but women being treated as second class citizens and in a sense being treated as property is nearly universal,” Roberts said. 

Accurate information about women’s land ownership is very difficult to gather and access, according to Roberts. If you go into a community and ask if a woman owns land and she says yes, she may mean that she works the land alongside her husband. 

“We don’t have very good data on how much land women own. And that has to do with the fact that research on women’s land rights is fairly recent and definitions of ownership are very varied, and so we have a big gap for data on this. It’s a huge problem,” Roberts said. 

A Reciprocal Relationship: When Women Own Land, Both are Uplifted 

Secure land rights create positive socio-economic opportunities for women, their families and their communities. Conversely, insecure tenure rights have been shown to restrict women’s choices related to marriage and non-marital unions, contributing to higher incidences of domestic violence, adverse health outcomes, and ultimately detrimental community impacts. 

There are a multitude of tangible benefits for the community when women own land rates of food security and nutrition for women and children increase, household spending on education for women increases, health outcomes for women and children increase, and the risk of gender-based violence within the home and community decreases. For widows, land can mean the difference between destitution and dignity.

“The role of land rights is very much linked to the respect of indigenous women’s rights, as well as enhancing their possibilities to make decisions related to how development should take place in their own communities,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples to the United Nations, in an interview with Devex during the 16th session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where she spoke about engaging women in climate action.

The results of women’s land ownership paint a clear picture of land’s benefits: according to Landesa, female farmers account for greater harvests and increased food security with secure land rights. 

When people can make a living on the land, they are not as easily displaced or impoverished when faced with climate impacts, and the land is more resilient to climate change events like droughts and floods. Managed soil and conservation leads to much more productive soil, which is able to be resilient and sustain a population. When soil is managed well, climate change is mitigated and people adapt, and the need for people to migrate to maintain a livelihood is also mitigated. 

“It’s really a very reciprocal relationship and often an overlooked or under implemented relationship between land tenure and climate change action,” Roberts says. 

Without secure land and resource rights, women and their communities are exposed to governments that might be tempted to concede land rights for concessionary allocations, and outside groups that may want to use the land for other purposes. They are exposed to land grabs of all kinds, and essentially the loss and destruction of their livelihoods and rights, according to Alain Frechette, Director, Strategic Analysis and Global Engagement at Rights + Resources. 

How Women Land Owners Can Solve the Climate Crisis 

Climate change mitigation and land are closely related. Climate change is understood as two sides of the same coin, Roberts says. One is fossil fuel reduction and the other is ecosystem management. Land underlies every effort to mitigate climate change on terrestrial surfaces and overlaps with efforts to increase ocean health.

According to Roberts, when policymakers implement climate change policy, they’re thinking about land management. However, they’re often not thinking about land tenure rights that relate to the Indigenous groups and local communities who depend on the systems of soil restoration and forest protection for their livelihoods. 

Yet too often local actors are overlooked. The people who manage forests and depend on natural resources for a living often don’t have land tenure rights. Whether it be language barriers or other reasons, people living in rural areas as well as Indigenous people suffer enormously from exclusion in policy conversations and implementation, to the degree that often Indigenous people have been expelled from the land they depend on in the name of forest protection. “We know from five decades of research, that when communities have secure rights to land, the land tends to be better managed, stores more carbon, habors more biodiversity, and benefits more people than land managed by other entities,” Frechette says. 

In an article by Devex, Solange Bandiaky-Badji, head of gender justice and Africa programs at RRI, said that land tenure is inseparable from environmental issues, as women are known to play a central role in protecting natural resources in their communities. Women have an incentive to protect local resources by having greater control and ownership of the land. 

“Forest women are a climate solution, and they need these community-based tenure regimes to ensure that that solution is not eroded by vested interests,” says Penny Davies, a program officer working on climate change and land use at the Ford Foundation. She believes that governments and development organizations should think of women living in Indigenous and rural communities as essential fighters in the battle against climate change. 

National laws and regulations in many countries consistently fail to protect the specific rights of women living in Indigenous and local community forests. Because women’s land rights are interconnected with the health and sustainability of the land itself, this in turn fails to prepare those countries to reach the targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement on climate change, a recent report called “Power and Potential” released by the Rights and Resources Initiative, or RRI, writes. 

Local Solutions for a Global Issue

Neglecting women’s rights to land tenure has serious consequences. Climate XChange also spoke with Chloe Ginsburg, a Tenure Analyst at Rights + Resources, on women’s lands rights. According to her, when women are not considered as equal rights holders to community lands and forests, there can be significant social and economic consequences, impacting their ability to benefit from community resources. But when women are awarded land, their lives and the lives around them vastly improve.

Land ownership issues for women reach across the world. In the United States, for example, women own half the farmland, yet they earn less than half the profits. Some of what this issue comes down to is size: “In a highly consolidated industry—in which large corporate firms dominate more than half of the country’s production—women tend to own smaller farms, thus yielding smaller profits,” Pacific Standard reports.

But it’s not just about size. Institutional limits have kept women out of agriculture for decades. The USDA in 2008 was ordered to pay out $1.33 billion to Latinx and women farmers who were denied loans because of their gender and race. 

What can we do in our own communities to support women and their land rights? The answer comes down to inclusivity. If we’re going to solve the climate crisis, we need to include women at the table. Support your community’s female farmers. Shop and eat locally. Donate your time and money to causes like the Women, Food and Agriculture Network. 

Without women we are missing an integral piece of climate change mitigation strategy. The benefits and results of land ownership are evident, yet so few women across the world have access to land themselves. Because land tenureship, power, and climate are all intertwined, women’s ability to secure land rights must inform the ongoing conversations around climate solutions.

Featured Image: Photo Illustration by Amanda Griffiths, Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash