Reforming the Land, Reforming the Future

Reforming the Land, Reforming the Future?

Climate change demands a multi-pronged approach, especially when considering the intricate relationship between land ownership, cattle farming, and sustainability. Although literature argues that agrarian reforms hold promise for empowering farmers with secure land rights and access to sustainable practices, their implementation in developing countries is often fraught with challenges.

By: Manuel Francisco Díaz Baca and Stefan Burkart

The study titled “The relationships between land tenure, cattle production, and climate change – A systematic literature review”, recently published in Land Use Policy, explores the connections between land ownership, cattle farming, and climate change in six developing countries with recent land reforms: Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil in Latin America, and Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya in Africa (Figure 1). The study examines how these reforms impact climate change, particularly regarding the adoption of sustainable livestock farming practices. The study also explores how climate change itself threatens land tenure security and hinders the development of livestock production.

Reforming the Land, Reforming the Future - Figure 1

Figure 1. Countries of analysis 

A Mixed Picture: Land Reform and Sustainability 

The research paints a complex picture in the studied countries: While land reforms have been implemented, improved access to credit for sustainable practices has not always followed through. Establishing agro-silvopastoral systems (integrating trees and/or crops with livestock grazing) faces hurdles such as limited technical support and financial resources. The historical context also casts long shadows for land distribution. For example, recent Colombian reforms aim to prevent land use as loan collateral; however, this goal was hampered by an outdated land cadaster. Similarly, beneficiaries of recent Mexican land titling faced credit difficulties due to program limitations and banking regulations. However, in Nigeria, land titling programs showed positive results for credit access for land title holders. Meanwhile, Kenya presented a case where unclear ownership structures made financial institutions hesitant to provide credit, despite land titles. 

Our research reveals a paradoxical relationship between land reform and deforestation. While secure land tenure is often seen as a pillar of sustainable land management, the reality on the ground can be quite different. In post-conflict Colombia, power vacuums allowed "false ranchers" to exploit the situation, prioritizing short-term gains through unsustainable practices and even fraudulent land deals. Similarly, Mexico's agrarian reforms, while successful in land distribution, led to population pressures on existing resources. Increased demand for wood, coupled with a lack of clear management structures, contributed to increased deforestation. Likewise, South Africa's pre-Apartheid collective ownership structures provide another example: high cattle densities under unclear management resulted in overgrazing and deforestation.

The cases of Brazil's Amazon rainforest and Kenya's Mau region illustrate a particularly concerning trend. Land titling initiatives in these areas have coincided with increased deforestation and grassland degradation. This stems from outsiders seeing the land as "no man's land", enabling them to settle, exploit resources, and engage in illegal land sales. These actions ultimately incentivize unsustainable practices.

The complex interplay between land ownership and forest preservation highlights the need for nuanced approaches to land reform that consider the unique social and environmental dynamics of each region.

Reforming the Land, Reforming the Future - Photo credit Anny Yedra CIAT

Cattle farm in Caquetá, Colombia. Credit: Anny Yedra / CIAT  

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This work was carried out as part of the One CGIAR Initiative Livestock and Climate (L&C). We thank all donors who globally support our work through their contributions to the CGIAR System. The views expressed in this document may not be taken as the official views of these organizations.