Engaging key stakeholders for resolving land disputes

This tactic of targeting absentee landowners as key stakeholders was non-confrontational and proved effective to target. The community created specific alliances with influential absentee landowners who were initially, and often unknowingly, part of the violation process. The movement was successful due to the recognition of the importance of the cooperation of this target group.

In Bangladesh, community dialogue efforts resulted in the development of a tactic to discourage absentee landowners from granting deeds to commercial shrimp farmers. This approach proved to be very effective in addressing the negative impacts of commercial shrimp farming - namely, salinity that affected homestead gardening and other village based occupations. A team of workers and peasant representatives as well as supporters including a journalist, activists, and NGO representatives was formed to identify the major absentee landowners. The team prepared a list of the absentee landowners and their current residences, tracking the origin of the deeds. The team surveyed their interests and positions regarding shrimp culture and prepared a situation analysis focusing on these issues. The supporting team met with the absentee landowners and raised their concerns with supporting facts, documents, and specific requests for their support and action.

As a result, most of the absentee land owners recognized the fact the shrimp culture violated the human rights of the villagers; however they did not initially agree to cancel the deeds. In response, the team targeted specific landlords to increase the effectiveness of their tactic. Subsequently, some landowners were persuaded to cancel their deeds, creating a precedent for others.

In Bangladesh in 1994-95, during the initial stages of the influx of commercial shrimp farming, the practice displaced coastal people’s lives and livelihoods in three districts: Khulana, Satkhira, and Bagerhat. About 3 million rural people’s lives were affected by outsider commercial shrimp farmers and other powerful groups initiating shrimp cultures on lands of absentee landlords. Outsider commercial shrimp farmers made deeds with absentee land owners to exploit the properties to create shrimp cultures. These shrimp cultures increased the salinity and affected homestead gardening and other village based occupations. These outside interests also organized hooligans to occupy the land and seriously effected the peace and security situation of the villages—particularly the women.

The primary victims of these human rights violations were the sharecroppers, poor peasants, and fisher folks in the southwest coastal areas of Bangladesh. The imposing commercial shrimp cultures increased salinity, disrupting the normal agriculture cycle and in turn affecting the lives and livelihoods of the villagers. This forceful occupation of land also led to the displacement of many sharecroppers and poor peasants.

The actions of the commercial shrimp farmers and subsequent hooligans led to gross human rights violations in southwestern Bangladesh. The initial responses to the imposition of the shrimp culture were unorganized and sporadic. The villagers attempted to resist occupation through mobilization, however, they were unsuccessful due to the fact that the local police and powerful political figures supported the intruders. Most of the commercial farmers were able to show deeds from absentee landowners giving them permission to use the land. The villagers resisting occupation were falsely accused and tortured by police; their efforts ineffective.

In addition, a legal case was filed in an attempt to access the justice system. As the issue received national attention, civil society, especially NGOs, local journalists and lawyers, stood by the farmers. As pressure and attention increased, outsiders reduced their interventions and the farmers began to see success.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 
Sometimes there are stakeholders who are unaware of their involvement in a particular issue. Being aware of the wide range of influential stakeholders is important to targeting challenging issues. Organizations should explore stakeholders, even those geographically removed from the area, in order to educate them on the problem and the unintended consequences that their actions may have had. 
This tactic highlights the importance of cooperation among stakeholders and allies. This case reveals that stakeholders needed to be united in the cause for change to occur. If the majority of the stakeholders are unwilling to shift their attitude, then the problem on the ground will continue. In this case, the organization was able to combat this obstacle by leveraging concerned landowners to persuade and pressure other landowners to change their behavior.  It is important to be creative in thinking about who could be a significant stakeholder and ally. 
If you are unsure of who your allies are, or how to identify new allies, check out Step 3: Map the Terrain in our Strategy Toolkit for more information.