The Land and Its People – Civil Society Voices Address the Crisis over Natural Resources in the Middle East/North Africa

The Housing and Land Rights Network of Habitat International Coalition (HIC-HLRN) warmly welcomes you to the Middle East/North Africa Land Forum. As a reader of this volume, you are joining a process that HIC-HLRN initiated in 2009 with the objective of developing further the knowledge and capacities of the region’s civil society actors as needed to advance both the research and advocacy agendas on human rights dimensions of land and natural resources. The volume under your eyes represents much of the cumulative output of the first four annual Land Forums since 2009. This volume also represents the completion of a critical diagnostic stage in the MENA region’s civil society’s expression of priorities, challenges, dilemmas and solutions in facing the ongoing—and growing—crisis of natural resource administration in the modern state system. As the various crises have evolved, so too has the critical voice of citizens in the governance of their own public assets. The present compilation at this phase of the Land Forum reflects both the rich diversity and remarkable similarities of the issues across the region. The MENA region is perhaps best known in the world over time as a veritable crossroads, where traders, political powers, resource extractors and external agents have vied for strategic advantage. However, the following chapters tell of the very local struggles over land and natural resources that abide within this more-familiar geostrategic context. Thus, The Land and Its People trains our focus on the local peoples and domestic dynamics that often are obscured from the sweeping global perspective. Like the Land Forum itself, this volume takes a view from the ground and explains those dynamics and ongoing struggles within states, as both also seek to identify common cause among them. The unfolding story of The Land and Its People reveals that common cause and its powerful potential embodied in the region’s civil society. The civil perspectives contained here divulge a citizen-based analysis of the issues whose time has come. The Land Forum also has sought to create the space and opportunity for the diffuse citizen voices and efforts to find common expression through exchange of knowledge and experience. As daunting as that task may be, the Land Forum has succeeded largely to establish the necessary common ground, as it were, and to converge urban and rural, development and environment, legal and popular approaches within a common normative frame of human rights and corresponding obligations as developed in the interstate system. Drawing on the normative framework of international human rights law, the diagnostic phase of the Land Forum represented here also reveals serious gaps in capacities and information. This assessment is also useful. In the region, the comparative analysis of analogous contests over land and natural resources such as Aḥwaz, Palestine and Western Sahara often are overlooked by case-specific observers within the region and the wider world. Women’s rights on the land and related gender issues remain understudied and under-reported, especially in contrast to their centrality. Certain emerging issues are known, if at all, by their political or rhetorical character, but the factual details remain elusive, partly because of scant data. Official discourse in and about the region also has obfuscated arguments arising from vital struggles and horrendous abuses. In the crucible of this region, however, the critical focus on land and natural resources brings into high relief the inextricable relationships between seemingly diverse “natural” and humanmade factors, physical planning and food security, urban and rural, geography and economy, extraterritorial forces and local human rights conditions, the haunting past and the ongoing present and future. Seeing the Middle East/North Africa from the perspective of the people’s land and natural resources also enables us to perceive the perfect storm on the climate change horizon, with the MENA region’s uniquely predicted combination of water stress and drought risks, coinciding with reduced crop yields. For whatever reasons of double standards, professional specialization, bias and/or factual deficits have caused these issues to escape our gaze, the so-called “Arab Spring,” which took place in the course of the Land Forum’s serial rounds, has reawakened us to the complexity of issues that beg urgent attention and policy correction. It is no mere coincidence that the infamous “Spring of Nations” uprisings in another place and time (1948 Europe) embodied comparable factors and features: social upheaval following a food crisis and revolutionary hopes dashed for lack of sustainable solidarity.

The Land Forum and, especially, this record go a long way to capture the lessons that remain, despite the derailment, disappointment and shortcomings of reform and transitional-justice processes to date. As this coherent perspective has crystallized for the participants of the Land Forum, the diagnostic stage now gives way to more-practical approaches. Future Land Forums will be dedicated to developing and applying strategies and tools to advance the research and advocacy agenda toward operationalizing the human rights approach to the administration and management of land and natural resources. Foremost among the tools commonly available to all concerned is the normative framework deliberated and developed at the regional and international levels. To date, the setting of those standards and the development of those tools far exceed their application and use. The efforts of future Land Forum participants will seek to make systematic use of those tools, norms, international mechanisms and global concepts. Within the region, civil society actors and activists have taken up many of the global concepts, as they are reflected in these pages. Writers have incorporated and localized the “social function of land and property,” “social production of habitat,” “right to the city,” “transitional justice,” “local government,” “right to land,” and “city-regions” as planning and policy concepts, adding specificity to the “human right to adequate housing” in discourse and in practice. As the Land Forum is a process, so too is this volume a living document, to which participants will contribute as the field evolves. Especially in its forthcoming electronic form—at and —HIC-HLRN will maintain an updated on-line resource of civil society contributions to the Land Forum. This English-language edition of Land and Its People takes the local production to a wider, external audience, as it presents, in translation, many of the lessons of the Land Forum. The specifics of each round are found in other references. However, this compilation represents the first time that HIC-HLRN is able to share this learning with a wider public. It is with equal appreciation for all of the contributors to this volume, the dedicated HLRN team in Cairo and, you, the reader, who now coincide on the juncture of the terrestrial and human dimensions of our region.

Welcome to the MENA Land Forum and to The Land and Its People.