Big land grabs accelerate dispossession of poor farmers

The poorest people in the global South are losing access to essential land and resources as a result of giant land deals, most of which are for biofuel production, not food.  

The most comprehensive study of large land acquisitions in developing countries to date — published online on 14 December by the International Land Coalition (ILC) — has found more evidence of harm than benefits.

More than 40 organisations collaborated on the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project, which synthesised 28 case studies, thematic studies and regional overviews.

The report also includes the latest data from the ongoing Land Matrix project to monitor large-scale land transactions, and covers a full decade of land deals from 2000-2010. Those deals amount to more than 200 million hectares of land – or eight times the size of the United Kingdom.

The research revealed some trends that have not been widely reported in the recent surge of media coverage of land deals. First, national elites play a much larger role in land acquisitions than has been noted to date by media reports that have focused on foreign investors.

Second, food is not the main focus of the land deals. Out of the 71 million hectares in deals that the authors could cross-reference, 22% was for mining, tourism, industry and forestry and three-quarters of the remaining 78% for agricultural production was for biofuels.

The researchers found that while large land deals can create opportunities, they are more likely to cause problems for the poorest members of society, who often lose access to land and resources that are essential to their livelihoods. “Under current conditions, large-scale land deals threaten the rights and livelihoods of poor rural communities and especially women,” says report lead author Ward Anseeuw of the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, CIRAD.

In addition, promised jobs have not yet materialised, and in their rush to attract investments, governments miss out on long-term tax and lease revenues that better negotiated deals could provide.

“The competition for land is becoming increasingly global and increasingly unequal. Weak governance, corruption and a lack of transparency in decision-making, which are key features of the typical environment in which large-scale land acquisitions take place, mean that the poor gain few benefits from these deals but pay high costs,” says Dr Madiodio Niasse, Secretariat Director of the International Land Coalition, whose members include UN agencies, International Financial Institutions, research institutes, and civil society and farmers’ organisations.

Weak land rights are another problem. “As governments own the land it is easy for them to lease large areas to investors, but the benefits for local communities or national treasuries are often minimal,” says co-author, Dr Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for Environment and Development. “This highlights the need for poor communities to have stronger rights over the land they have lived on for generations.”

“There is little in our findings to suggest that the term ‘land grabbing’ is not widely deserved,” says Dr Michael Taylor, ILC Secretariat’s Programme Manager, Global Policy and Africa, who coordinated the study process and co-authored the synthesis report.

In addition, economic governance is failing the rural poor. The international trade regimes provide robust legal protection to international investors, while fewer and less effective international arrangements have been established to protect the rights of the rural poor or to ensure that greater trade and investment translate into inclusive sustainable development and poverty reduction.

Part of the problem is also that many policymakers think small-scale farming has no future and that large scale, intensive agriculture is the best way to achieve food security and support national development.

The dispossession and marginalisation of the rural poor is nothing new. Rather, the current land rush represents an acceleration of ongoing processes, and one that appears set to continue. This report thus concludes that we are at a crossroads as regards the future of rural societies, land-based production and ecosystems in many areas of the South.

The report recommends that governments and investors:

  • recognise and respect the customary land and resource rights of rural people.
  • put smallholder production at the centre of strategies for agricultural development.
  • make international human rights law work for the poor.
  • make decision-making over land transparent, inclusive and accountable.
  • ensure environmental sustainability in decisions over land and water-based acquisitions and investments.

The report strongly urges models of investment that do not involve large-scale land acquisitions, but rather work together with local land users, respecting their land rights and the ability of small-scale farmers themselves to play a key role in investing to meet the food and resource demands of the future.

Download Land Rights and the Rush for Land here

Posted in Biofuel, Food and Farming, Land grabbing
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