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What climate change and corruption mean for land security

Ground that was once fertile is now desert. Seawater is swallowing small island states. Lakes and rivers are encroaching on nearby communities. The effects of climate change are complex and can seem contradictory. What is clear, however, is that as our natural habitats are transformed, safe, useful land is decreasing in size and increasing in value. This is putting added strain on people’s ability to ensure access to lands that they live and work on.

At Transparency International we are seeing worrying signs that corruption is making the right to land more precarious still. Be it bribe-paying to appropriate land, or a nepotistic approach to resettlement projects, corruption in land management must be tackled. Staff working on climate issues at two of our national chapters tell us why.

Land rights, building permits and forest preservation in Kenya

Jacob Otachi and Francis Kairu of TI Kenya

Jacob Otachi and Francis Kairu from Transparency International Kenya discuss their chapter’s work on land issues.

Transparency International Kenya has three Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres, which give free and confidential legal counsel to victims or witnesses of corruption. Around a quarter of the cases received at our centre in Mombasa relate to land, totalling 58 since September 2011.

Most of these reports relate to corrupt officials who accept bribes to authorise building permits. Many people also claim to have been illegally evicted – often violently – from their land, sometimes due to a court order given by a corrupt judge. Forestland is a particular concern. We receive many complaints that woodland is illegally cleared to make way for construction or agriculture, which is driving people from their homes and exacerbating deforestation.

A case reported in July of this year concerned a forested area along Kenya’s southern coastline. People with ties to local decision-makers have been registering this land as their own and evicting indigenous communities who have lived there for generations but cannot legally enforce their rights. Our client claimed that a crematorium was to be built on a parcel of this land, which should by law be protected. We received reports that the new landowners had acquired an environmental impact assessment – a prerequisite for a building permit – by bribing a local official 1 million Kenyan shillings (almost US$12,000).

We contacted Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission. Following a discussion with the regional head of the environmental authority, the licence was revoked. On a positive note, this case shows that justice can be won when people start asking questions. Unfortunately, in this instance we were too late to save the huge tract of woodland that had already been cleared.

Climate change is causing widespread drought in Kenya, and many people have been forced to leave their homes in search of fertile land. Unless land governance is made more visible and more accountable, new land will go to wealthy bribe-payers rather than deserving owners.

The Enriquillo Lake: Swelling waters and pressure on land

Deleda Samboys of Participación Ciudadana

Deleda Samboys from Participación Ciudadana, our chapter in the Dominican Republic, talks about worrying signs of corruption as her country adapts to the effects of climate change.

Enriquillo Lake is the Dominican Republic’s largest natural water reserve. In a curious development the lake is rapidly expanding – it is now twice the size it was in 2004. Scientists say that this is a result of global warming, which shifts patterns in evaporation and precipitation. Similar swelling has been observed in lakes as close as in neighbouring Haiti and as far as China’s Nam Co Lake.

As Enriquillo continues to swell, nearby communities, farmers and producers are being forced to leave. In 2009, then-President Leonel Fernandez visited the area and promised over 500 families new homes.

The swelling waters of Lago Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic

At Participación Ciudadana we received information that friends and family of government members were being relocated while families whose situation was far worse were not. This begs many questions about the role that nepotism and cronyism might play in Dominican politics. With partner organisations such as the National Youth Action Network we have been investigating these claims. We have written to the Ministry of Agriculture, requesting information on who has been given money, housing and land, and why. We are still waiting for a reply.

As the Dominican Republic continues to cede space to sea level rise brought by climate change, pressures on land will only increase. We will be working to ensure that citizen rights are upheld, especially in these uncertain times.

Connecting climate change and anti-corruption work

The Dominican Republic and Kenya are on the frontiers of climate change. Both countries also have a poor track record for corruption, scoring 2.6 and 2.2 out of 10 in our 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. Land is situated at the intersection of these two phenomena. The more scarce it becomes as a result of global warming, the more likely it is that corruption will cloud its management.

At Transparency International we are shining a light on climate change policy-making and financing. We want to ensure that money spent on adaptation isn’t lost to corruption – that flood defences are tall enough, that buildings are strong enough, and that irrigation systems work. We also want decision-making to be fair, and not swayed by greased palms or brown envelopes.

What happens to communities when the storms, droughts and floods hit? Where do they go and who decides? Keeping climate governance clean will mean asking some uncomfortable questions about what’s in store for those of us whose right to land is on shaky ground.

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