Languages, Land Tenure, and Land Degradation

Indigenous production of Tequila, Mexico


A recent Devblog article (also published on LinkedIn), was titled “Living languages – and dead ones” (Note 1). It addresses the fact that many of the languages spoken by indigenous peoples and ethnic/cultural minorities are severely endangered, with many becoming extinct in recent years. Moreover, the rate of extinction continues. The article evaluates ongoing efforts to address this extinction.

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) works to combat land degradation (Note 2). UNCCD addresses this via broadly defined approaches and activities. A key focus lies in working with specific stakeholders, and aims to identify their needs, resources, and limitations, in relation to other stakeholders. The goal is to arrive at solutions that provide optimal security for future income generations, while at the same time decrease land degradation. I have been involved in this work, specifically with the private sector (Note 3). Recently UNCCD started work on addressing a specific group of stakeholders, namely local people that own – or have use rights to – specific natural resources, be it grasslands, forests, plants, soil, trees, or water (including freshwater and saltwater). A term that covers many of these stakeholders globally are "indigenous peoples". More generic terms – albeit vaguer, because of the lack of an agreed upon definition – would be "ethnic minorities" and "cultural minorities". This article presents some preliminary comments on the connection between: (1) languages, (2) land tenure, and (3) land degradation.

The Arguments

Land tenure and tenure rights are terms that may not be intuitively understood by many. It follows that they may not be understood to be relevant to prevent land degradation. An important reason for this is that many stakeholders, certainly in the global North, intuitively think of natural resources as being privately or individually owned. That is, the owner is a single person. The idea of ownership being vested in a collective – that is, common property rights – is not well understood, and, accordingly, not well accepted. Add to this the sometimes-complicating issue of the difference between communal ownership rights and communal use rights. Common property rights, together with culture and language, are important for UNCCD's planned work on tenure rights, for at least the following closely connected arguments or processes:

  1. Culture and Language. There is a close connection between language and culture, not just for indigenous peoples but for all humanity (Note 4). A language reflects the culture it is part of. Vice versa, a culture is communicated through its language. This connection is more pronounced the more marginal a culture and its language is, in political, economic, and demographic terms. It follows that marginal cultures, together with their languages. stand a bigger chance of unravelling as they become acculturated in the face of globalization processes,
  2. Language and Knowledge. These cultures, whether labelled as cultural/ethnic minorities or indigenous peoples, utilize their local environment to a very high degree, and they have a profound knowledge about their environment, as well as the relationships between this environment and their own culture. This knowledge is the basis for their use of this environment, be it for purposes of farming, fishing, gathering, herding, or hunting.
  3. Knowledge and Natural Resource Management (NRM). There is a close connection between knowledge and natural resource management (NRM). This is in practice the domain of community-based natural resource management, or CBNRM (Note 5). An interview with me at the UNCCD Conference of the Parties (COP) in Windhoek, Namibia, addresses CBNRM and land degradation (Soeftestad, 2013).  Farmers, fishermen, and herders, communicate among themselves, and with their children, the practices of how to farm, fish, and herd, as well as the general situation or status in the relevant environment and ecosystems. These are crucial intra-generational and inter-generational communication processes.
  4. Natural Resource Management (NRM) and Subsistence Practices. This knowledge about NRM, accumulated over centuries, translates into behaviour and rules for how to best utilize the available environmental resources. This is also part of the domain of CBNRM (cf. item no. 3 above).
  5. Subsistence Practices and Land Tenure. The practices of farming, fishing, gathering, herding, and hunting translate into informal and formal rules for where to farm, herd, and fish, together with who can do this, how, where, and when. Over time ownership rights and use rights developed, that is, tenurial arrangements. Fish, herbs, hunted animals, produce, etc., were divided between members of a community, often kinship-based and as part of the social organization of a community. The idea is that kinship-based groups, families, and other entities within the local social organization have certain rights. These communal or collective rights are, in general: (a) collective ownership and (b) use rights. The latter implies that ownership resides in one group, while another group have rights to access and exploit resources (for example, harvesting herbs and fruits from bushes and trees).
  6. Land Tenure and Land Degradation. The focus on land tenure and land management, and more specifically land degradation, aims to address a number of complex and interacting issues that operate at the local level, as well as between the local level and all macro-levels. They include several important issues and processes, inter alia, co-management, democratization, devolution, inclusion, participation, and transparency (Davis and Soeftestad, 1995; Soeftestad, 1989; 1991; 1993; 1994). These issues and processes can be subsumed under the heading of globalization. In essence, the result in dramatic social, cultural and environmental changes at the local level which impacts, inter alia, culture, knowledge, natural resource management, land tenure, and subsistence practices. This final step represents the concrete link to UNCCD's interest.

The above arguments, or rather two-way causality chain of processes, can be summarized as follows:



    Culture <-> Language <-> Knowledge <-> NRM <-> Subsistence Practices <-> Land Tenure <-> Land Degradation



In the above figure, the links between the various elements aims to show how the causality is reciprocal, that is, it goes both ways. Some might find the choice of issues included, their implied definition, together with the relationships between them, somewhat different from what they are used to. For me, however, the goal here is not to follow any established orthodoxy in social science in using and relating concepts. Instead it is to present a sequential logic of issues and processes that hopefully make intuitive sense. I have, in effect, tried to disentangle the vastly complex processes of the relationships between nature and culture, between environment and people, in order to present it in a more didactic way, and accordingly hopefully make it more intuitively understandable. Additionally, this approach should also make it more useful for understanding how change occurs, and how change impacts the overall relationship between the environment and its local users in multiple and often surprising ways.

So, Where Does This Leaves Us?

With languages disappearing, and, what is more common, with languages becoming infused with words from other languages, primarily colonial languages (Note 6), the ability to communicate subsistence practices and tenure rights change dramatically. When old terms disappear and whole languages die, this communication stops completely. Of course, people do not stop talking to and with each other – their language may survive, but will be infused with foreign words. In effect, their language will change. And these foreign words never cover the exact same meaning and content as the original words that they were supposed to replace. The result is less successful communication, intra-generational and especially inter-generational. Sons do not learn the old practices of farming, herding, and fishing, and old and established tenure rights systems change, or even dissolve. As a result, common property rights systems tend to turn into private property rights systems. This, in turn, leads to uncertainties and to conflicts, and to changes in land tenure and subsequently to land degradation. I hope that this article can provide ideas and incentives for addressing the negative changes.

Lars T Soeftestad

(1) Available at: A shorter version of this article is published on LinkedIn, at:
(2) United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), for link see Sources.
(3) This concerns specifically multinational corporations that invest primarily in developing countries. This is the focus of the Sustainable Land Management Business Forum (SLMBF). Details at:
(4) There are obviously arguments over what came first, culture or language. Part of the reason for this discussion is how to define "culture" (and perhaps also "language") for the purpose of this argument. A safe position would be to argue that they developed in parallel, mutually reinforcing each other. If so, this whole discussion can safely be called off.     
(5) Originally developed in Southern Africa, CBNRM is today used internationally. The Norwegian NGO "CBNRM Networking" manages "CBNRM Net", a global network of, for, and by CBNRM practitioners (see Sources).
(6) The main colonial languages that are historically recognized as operating at regional and/or international levels today, are: Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
(7) Image credit: Supras Ltd., Norway and Bulgaria. About: fieldtrip organized at a conference of the International Association for the Study of Commons (IASC), Oaxaca, Mexico, August 2004. The group visited a village that produced Tequila.
(8) Relevant Devblog articles: "Living languages
- and dead ones" at:
(9) Other Devblog articles: "Indigenous peoples and the environment" at: | "Appropriation of indigenous cultural property" at:
(10) Permalink. URL:
(11) This article was published 11 February 2020. It was revised 13 March 2021.

CBNRM Net, at:
CBNRM Networking, at:
Davis, Shelton and Lars Soeftestad. 1995. "Participation and indigenous people". In. World Bank participation sourcebook, pp. 244-47, at: (Note: also published as World Bank, Social Development Notes no. 8, 1995, & World Bank Environment Department Papers, Participation Series, no. 21
Soeftestad, Lars. 1989. "Indigenous peoples and land rights: international work", at: (Note: revised version of an article published in German in Geographica Helvetica, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 164-76, 208-12, 1988)
Soeftestad, Lars. 1991. "On land rights for indigenous peoples", at:
Soeftestad, Lars. 1993. "Indigene Voelker und die Vereinten Nationen". In: 500 Jahre danach. Indigene Voelker beider Amerika, pp 332-351, ed. Peter R. Gerber, Ethnologische Schriften Zurich 13, Zurich: Voelkerkundemuseum der Universitaet Zurich, at:ölker_und_die_Vereinten_Nationen
Soeftestad, Lars. 1994. "Indigenous communities". Paper commissioned for the World Bank's 'Workshop on participatory development', Washington DC, USA, 17-20 May, at:
Soeftestad, Lars. 2013. "A social science response to land degradation", at:
United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, at: