Contested Territory: The Climate Crisis and Land Ownership

Architecture, by its very definition, involves the construction of structures. Structures that are meant to serve as spaces for work, living, religious devotion, amongst many other purposes. Architectural projects and interventions, however, need land – and it is this intrinsic relationship, between land and architecture, that has massive ramifications not only regarding reducing carbon emissions but more importantly in forming an equitable future rooted in climate justice.

The built environment of the cities we live in does not exist in isolation, it is underpinned by the various systems that direct how most of our societies function today. One of those systems is the law – through which contracts can be disputed, lawsuits are brought forward, and which governs who has the right to ownership to portions of land in settlements around the world. A sobering reality is, around the world, urban buildings are monopolised by corporations. In many cases these large structures destroy the urban tissue and density of street-level architecture that contributes to making a city characteristic, limiting opportunities for diverse interactions between the multi-faceted residents of a city.

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Skyline of London. Image © João Barbosa on Unsplash

This phenomenon of concentrating urban properties in the hands of a few also takes place amidst a larger discussion on climate change. Even though half of humanity has made their homes in cities, the question of who owns the land in rural areas is an essential one, considering the significant value of rural-urban interdependence in the realisation of more equitable societies. Secure land tenure, if climate change is going to be comprehensively addressed, is an important part of ensuring that the forests found in rural areas are looked after, maintained, and sustain the communities that live in them.

Indigenous and community lands around the world, for example, are hugely important carbon sinks – absorbing the world’s carbon and holding at least 22% of the carbon stored in tropical and subtropical forests. In Peru, while interventions in the urban realm by organisations such as Ocupa tu Calle have played a key part in the creation of animated public spaces, the forests of the South American country have seen radical spatial interventions take place too.

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Ocupa Tu Barrio: Magdalena del Mar. Image © Arturo Diaz Quiroz

The relatively recent titling of indigenous land in the Peruvian Amazon has meant that forest disturbance and clearing has been greatly reduced, with this granting of legal ownership of forests to indigenous people a highly efficient way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation – especially with the consideration that forests are fundamental in generating rainfall across continents. The health of the world’s forests plays a substantial part in making our cities more habitable, meaning that the legal framework of who owns them matters.

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Rainforest in Peru. Image via Rainforest Foundation USA

A well-known effect of climate change in contemporary conversations has been the strong rise in extreme weather events over the years. Land tenure is also an intrinsic part of adapting to these events too. The 2000 Limpopo Valley floods in Mozambique, seen by some as an early indicator of extreme weather events due to climate change, were the worst natural disaster in the history of modern Mozambique. Nonetheless, major disputes relating to land following the disaster were largely absent. This was mainly due to strong decision-making institutions at the local level, which despite mostly being informal, are recognised by the country’s Land Law in the absence of formal documentation – allowing for the much faster rebuilding of settlements affected by the disaster in the absence of drawn-out disputes over land ownership.

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Rural Mozambique. Image © hbpro/Shutterstock

In places such as Bangladesh, land ownership can be precarious for disadvantaged communities after extreme weather events. The roots of Bangladesh’s land laws lie in the British colonial period, where land revenue was the largest source of income for the provincial government. Surplus land - known as khas – in the country was settled on payment of deposits equal to the market price of the land, meaning that in effect, only those with financial power were able to obtain such land settlements.

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Rural Village - Upazila, Patuakhali, Bangladesh. Image © Mohammad Shahidul Islam

Today’s land laws in Bangladesh have been reformed from the colonial era, but they remain reformations merely on paper. The many floods and cyclones that have impacted Bangladesh have left many rural households landless, not to mention left land unsuitable for cultivation. These households then often settle on new khas land, which is officially state-owned but results in a highly insecure existence due to murky laws and complex administrative procedures – inaccessible to rural populations who often are poor and illiterate. Rural communities such as those found in Rajapur village in southern Bangladesh also harbour important knowledge of vernacular building traditions that mitigate destructive natural disasters – making their legal status of land ownership all the more important with the alarming frequency of climate-induced disasters on the planet.

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Vernacular architecture responses in Bangladesh. Image © Sandro di Carlo Darsa

As we think about how we can shape our cities to reduce carbon emissions, it is important to critique the systems of land ownership that exist today, and to better grasp the importance of rural communities in alleviating the many effects of climate change. 

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Cite: Matthew Maganga. "Contested Territory: The Climate Crisis and Land Ownership " 08 Nov 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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