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Using Land Degradation Neutrality as a pathway to climate security and protect indigenous women’s rights

By 2050, the global population is expected to be 9.7 billion, increasing the demand for agricultural products including food, feed, fibre, and fuel. About 25% of the total global land area has been affected by land degradation.

It is estimated that in the drylands, 12 million hectares of land are becoming degraded by desertification processes annually. Globally, 1.5 billion people are affected by land degradation, especially rural communities, smallholder farmers, and the very poor 70% of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods

Land and forest degradation threaten the livelihoods, well-being, food, water, and energy security and increase the vulnerability of millions of people. Pressures on the global land resource are increasing because of: the growing demand for food and agricultural commodities, both quantity and quality, for a growing and more affluent world population; competition for productive land for biofuel, urban expansion, and other non-productive uses; decreasing or lack of growth in productivity due to declines in soil health; weakened resilience of agricultural production systems because of depleted biodiversity and ecosystem services; and natural factors such as climate variability and extreme weather events.

In 2015 the UNCCD introduced the new concept of Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN), which was later adopted as a target of Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals, Life on Land, “By 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought, and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation neutral world.” Over 120 countries have committed to pursue voluntary LDN targets.

The objectives of LDN are to:

• maintain or improve the sustainable delivery of ecosystem services;

• maintain or improve productivity, in order to enhance food security;

• increase resilience of the land and populations dependent on the land;

• seek synergies with other social, economic and environmental objectives; and

• reinforce responsible and inclusive governance of land.

The fundamental aim of LDN is to preserve the land resource base, by ensuring no net loss of healthy and productive land, at the national level. This goal can be achieved through a combination of measures that avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation (Fig 1). Achieving LDN requires estimating the expected cumulative impacts of land use and land management decisions, and counterbalancing anticipated losses through strategically-planned rehabilitation or restoration of degraded land, within the same land type.

LDN is defined as “a state whereby the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security remain stable or increase within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems.” Decision 3/COP.12, UNCCD 2015

Land Degradation and Women’s rights

Widespread and unprecedented rapid degradation of land threatens food production, water availability, and biodiversity, and energy security worldwide. Land degradation contributes to climate change, deepens poverty, and induces displacement and migration, while those forces, in turn, worsen land degradation. When land is degraded and usable land becomes scarce, women are uniquely and differentially affected given their substantial role in agriculture and food production, greater vulnerability to poverty, and typically weaker legal protections and social status. Women constitute the majority of farmers in many of the regions most severely affected by desertification, land degradation, and drought. Nearly 80 percent of employed women in the least developed countries report agriculture as their primary source of livelihood, while women comprise 43 percent of the world’s agricultural labor force. While they often serve as environmental stewards, women tend to: be excluded from participation and leadership in conservation and management of land, lack access to agricultural extension services and institutional credit, and encounter barriers to participation in development, planning, and policymaking processes. Unlike men, women often have less access to information, resources, and legal rights to land, natural and productive resources. Unequal power relations and gender-based discrimination in legal and customary systems in many societies even deny women user rights to plant trees, control soil degradation and enhance soil fertility.

Environmental Defenders actions

It is for these reasons that The Environmental Defenders supports Land Degradation Neutrality, including through the conservation of forest ecology and the use of nature-based solutions as a strategy of defense against climate change. Promoting equitable governance, effective management and positive conservation outcomes. We believe that accepted environmental and human rights principles embody the right of everyone to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment, and that environmental degradation leads to human rights violations such as the right to life, health, and culture. These are the different actions through which Environmental Defenders is implementing its program to contribute to the LDN; Trees planting and reforestation, seed banking and collection, biodiversity monitoring, land purchase, and acquisition for reforestation, wildlife and plants protection, documentation of environmental crimes, environmental education, and awareness campaigns; Mobilization of rural communities to advocate and take direct action against illegal land sales, and forced evictions taking place without their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, provide direct legal support, map, and document land rights violations; direct support to women land rights activists and environmental human rights defenders. Creating opportunities for wildlife and people to co-exist; Strengthening women’s land rights and access to resources and improving the living conditions of indigenous populations affected by the impacts of land and environmental degradation.

Defend Defenders Podcast

Voices of defenders – Beatrice Rukanyanga


Beatrice has in-depth knowledge of the ecological system of the land in which she lives, understanding its most recent threats and sharing her indigenous knowledge. Through her voice we will discover her actions for climate justice, from campaigning in defense of the Bugoma forest to the use of traditional and indigenous techniques of conservation agriculture. 

“I would like to see reduced carbon emission.  Where communities are using alternative sources of energy, they are not destroying the environment and they are also promoting agriculture practices that conserve the environment. ” 

Beatrice is a leader at Kwataniza Women Farmers Group, a Community Based Organizations based in Hoima district. She is a committed climate justice activist energizing women’s dialogue at the community level.

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Among pandemics, elections and human rights abuses. Testimonies and feedback from Women defenders

The overall goal of Environmental Defenders’ program Defend Defenders is to contribute to the enhancement of the respect of human rights in Uganda by strengthening the physical and digital security of Women Environmental and Human Rights Defenders (W-EHRDs). The 2020 is a challenging year; W-EHRDs working in the Albertine Region agree:

“Human rights activism amidst Covid-19 pandemic have been compromised. Our organization activities have been affected given the increasing police brutality and the hostile environment yet human rights defenders are required to work from home to avoid infections. This has exposed many of us to new risks as we have to adapt to the changing world. So, we have to change the way we protect both our information and more especially our life from danger that arrive as a result of our works. We will ensure maximum security protocols will be implemented, especially during this time that election is taking place with more abuses.”

These words come from the women we met in the workshops we organized in the latter half of the year in a few districts. Many of the training participants was involved in environmental monitoring and crime reporting activities related to illegal logging, and have been subjected to several threaths including the threat of arrest, office eviction and illegal forced eviction from residential, sexual assault, defamation and hate speech on social media network from local political leaders against their work to tarnish their names. They have also seen their online communications intercepted or being questioned for what they have stated on social media and what they said on radio. Some of them work with people evicted from their land by oil companies: 

“We onetime organized meetings with Project Affected Person (PAP), where people lands are taken by the oil company without fair compensation. We wanted to meet the PAPs and hear from them their grievances, but we were told to stop the meeting within 15 minutes with allegation that we are inciting violence, so this has given us fear and threat in carrying out our work as Civil Society Organization”

We believe it is urgent to focus on digital and physical security, risk assessments, as well as psychosocial wellbeing to meet W-EHRDs challenges and make organizations more resilient to continue their human rights advocacy. We realized how important it is to take this holistic approach to safety in backing up every action we take.

“I got chances to attend such training and I know how crucial it is. Some
of us now have the password which can take decades to be hacked, so I made sure that this training should be brought up here to help us gain more knowledge. I encourage you may fellow participants especially journalists to be serious and understand a lot of things I know it will help us a lot”

Defend Defenders Podcast

“Voices of defenders”. The serial launching the “Ikolojia” podcast

To celebrate the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we at Environmental Defenders share with you the experiences of the long round of Women Environmental and Human Rights defenders (WEHRDs) in the Albertine region. To do so, we published their stories within our new podcast, Ikolojia, in a series entitled Voices of Defenders.

Voices of Defenders raise voices from women and WEHRDs in the Albertine region about ecological justice, through a narration made starting from everyday life experiences.Together we will explore many topics, including conservation and reforestation, traditional and indigenous nature-based solutions, gender inequalities in land rights, sexual reproductive health, women’s participation in decision-making, climate refugees, physical and digital security. What has been collected is a unique legacy of collective knowledge, that is valuable to the region and to the world outside that can access it for the first time.

About Ikolojia.

Presenting the relationships between women and nature, between indigenous people and land, which are often not known or recognized, we introduce traditional and new approach to sustainability, from the use of resources to community life. Connected with the demand for ecological justice, the Environmental Defenders podcast IKOLOJIA (Ecology) presents a narration made starting from everyday life experiences of women and Indigenous people in the Albertine Region (Uganda).

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Appeal to Ugandan Government and Oil companies operating in the Albertine Region

Women Environmental Human Rights Defenders – WEHRDs are any individual or group working to protect or promote human rights in the context of the environment, such as the defense of land rights, access to natural resources and the right to a healthy environment, and that they are often members of indigenous and traditional communities who play a key role in combating environmental crime.

The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights recognized for the full and effective implementation, and for promoting respect, support and protection for the activities of human rights defenders, including women and indigenous human rights defenders which is essential to the overall enjoyment of human rights and for the protection and conservation of the environment, including the rights to life, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food and housing, and to safe drinking water and sanitation, and cultural rights.

However, in recent years, there have been an increasing rate of killings, violent acts, including gender-based violence, threats, harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, criminalization, judicial harassment, forced eviction and displacement of environmental human rights defenders, including indigenous and women human rights defenders particularly, and other human rights defenders addressing issues relating to land rights.

Across the world, more than 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 an average of more than four people a week. Of these, over 1 in 10 defenders killed were women. Mining, agribusiness and logging were the major sectors linked to the most murders and increasing security threats globally. Over two-thirds of killings took place in Latin America, which has consistently ranked the worst-affected region since Global Witness began to publish data in 2012. Verifying cases from Africa continues to be difficult due to limited monitoring of the issue by civil society, media repression and localised conflict mean attacks are probably underreported in some regions according to the Global Witness.

WEHRD’s are particularly targeted because they act and speak out against environmental harms and human rights abuse thus they have increasing targeted with gender-specific threats, including sexual violence, violence against their children another family member.

Environmental Defenders – ED is working closely with the communities in the Albertine region of Uganda that suffer the direct consequences of environmental harms and human rights violations linked to mining, agribusiness and logging through providing digital and physical protection for WEHRD’s and their organizations as well as communities. Providing emergency psychosocial support and legal advice to WEHRD’s and their organizations as well as communities at the grassroots level in the region.

The communities that ED supports are those negatively impacted by the ongoing Oil and gas exploration activities with their associated negative impacts on the environment and the human rights of the populations residing in the areas affected by the oil project, and which they attribute to a diverse range of actors. In particular, in particular, communities right to land, housing, and an adequate standard of living, the right to health and clean water and the right to a healthy environment have been negatively affected. The violations of these rights are inextricably related to violations of the right to information, the right to participation, and the right of access to justice perpetrated by the Oil project by China National Offshore Oil Corporation – CNOOC and Total Uganda ltd.

The activities of WEHRD’s and their organizations as well as communities are met with constant Government harassment and restrictions, along with the threat of various forms of repression. For example, Police raids and administrative and judicial harassment are used as deterrents against the work of WEHRD’s and their organisations. This worrying context for human rights sets a negative precedent that may aggravate the impacts of the activities of the oil industry.

Environmental Defenders – ED demand the Ugandan government and oil companies:

  • to listen to Women Environmental Human Rights Defenders – WEHRD’s and to apply specific urgent protective and preventive measures in order to reduce the alarming numbers of threats and violence against WEHRD’s and their organizations;
  • (Government) to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, including in all actions undertaken to address environmental challenges, including the rights to life and to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to an adequate standard of living, to adequate food and housing, safe drinking water and sanitation, and cultural rights, and to human rights as they relate to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment;
  • (Government) to adopt and uphold laws aimed at the protection of WEHRD’s and other human rights defenders and, to put in place holistic protection measures for, and in consultation with, WEHRD’s and other human rights defenders and communities, and to ensure accountability and prosecution for threats and attacks against women environmental human rights defenders in the Albertine region.

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Security concerns in land tenure data collection, monitoring and reporting environmental crimes and human rights abuses in land disputes

The porous borders between South Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo pass through the northern section of the Albertine Graben. It is a rural area enclosed between the DR Congo’ tropical rainforests and the South Sudanese grasslands, crossed by the White Nile flowing out from Lake Albert. Located far away from the edge of the key centers of their respective Countries, it is a territory transited for migration and trade reasons, from North to South and from West to East. The region, which is well known for its biodiversity and large presence of natural resources, presents in land one of its main assets. Local communities depend on land for subsistence farming and for grazing animals.

In recent years sensitivity on land ownership and tenureship has grown a lot through: ethnic conflicts that emerged over contentious boundary definitions (such as the “Apaa Land Conflict” in Adjumani district, Uganda); the deployment of wildlife conservation and economic development rhetoric from Governments, investors and international agencies to justify large-scale land grabs against rural and indigenous communities; large-scale international projects that involve oil extraction and processing and other raw materials mining, excluding communities from the participatory mechanisms and especially by using compensation frameworks that do not directly benefit these communities (such as the Tilenga project in Buliisa and Hoima districts, Uganda); social emergencies and humanitarian crises (such as the construction of refugee camps in Arua, Yumbe, and Adjumani, Hoima districts, Uganda). This has led to an increase in land rights abuses resulting in mass evictions, along with human rights abuses (physical attacks including killings, imprisonment, beatings, professional limitation, and so on) and environmental crimes including deforestation in protected areas and trafficking in wild animals.

Among the Ugandan districts most affected by these trials, critical situations are reported in Adjumani, Pakwach, Nebbi districts in the West Nile subregion and in Buliisa, Hoima, Kiryandongo districts in Western subregion.

According to Art. 2 of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 17 December 2018), “States shall respect, protect and fulfil the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas. They shall promptly take legislative, administrative and other appropriate steps to achieve progressively the full realization of the rights set forth in the present Declaration that cannot be immediately guaranteed”. Therefore, all NGOs, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), communities, indigenous groups and individuals working in the region in defence of land rights as farmers, fisherwomen/fishermen, land owners, and who depend on land for subsistence farming and for grazing animals, exercising their rights in accordance with national and international laws, act as Environmental and Human Rights Defender (EHRD). Only a few groups of EHRDs in the Albertine region specifically deal with the multi-stakeholder dialogue in land rights disputes, promoting environmental accountability, creating civic awareness among local communities, and providing protection and legal support. The work of these people is thwarted by murder attempts, arrests, beatings, threats and harassment, seizure of personal goods, telephone surveillance, eviction from offices, intrusion into residentials, digital surveillance, IT systems hacking, document theft, and so on. Not everyone has received support to manage safely their projects or is equipped with a physical and digital security plan. Moreover, the situation worsened after the Covid-19 pandemic, which obliged members of these organizations to work from private locations.

Next January 2021, in Uganda there will take place the Presidential elections raising several concerns, from the heavy deployment of armed army officers in election related activities, to the shutdown of Internet, mobile money services and social media services, fund blocking, violent clampdown of meetings, blackmail by perpetrators. It is expected that during the election period EHRDs will be involved in these incidents.

This demonstrates that the confrontation involving EHRDs organizations is played in the digital domain in a steady interweaving with the physical one.


Data collection, monitoring and reporting land rights abuses in Albertine Region

A key activity of the EHRDs groups is the maintenance of the monitoring cycle on lands, which is tied with the reporting of violations against land rights, environmental crimes and human rights abuses. Traditionally this is accomplished through the systematic collection of information across territory (as periodic or incident reports) using physical or digital archives guarded in the organization’ offices, shared through emails, or messaging services. These activities mostly require to be carried out in the open field, exposing members involved in reporting to threats.


Requests from EHRDs in Albertine Region on security challenges

As EHRDs organizations, CSOs, communities, collectives, indigenous groups in Albertine region:

  1. we require a physical and digital security plan, comply with the main security frameworks for organizations, benefit from specific training for the maintenance and use of digital assets, develop tailor-made security protocols for our field of action and local context.
  2. we ask local, national and international donors, up to the multilaterals that fund our projects and actions, to make accountable the security of members, communities and any stakeholders involved.
  3. we need a regional security strategy for EHRDs organizations in the Albertine Region developing a documentation system, and allowing for disintermediation in emergency situations affecting local communities (linking the documentation system with a local and flexible response mechanism for incidents).
  4. we demand for data governance within a secure and transparent institutional framework.
  5. we require scientific standards in collection methods and analysis to generate data that meet minimum quality requirements for the purpose of documentation, reporting and collection of forensic evidence in legal proceedings, for land rights litigation, environmental crimes and human rights abuses.
  6. we point out the importance of using safe digital tools to collect periodic and incident reporting, with rigorous storage, management and governance measures for the use and analysis of data collected.