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Stopping land grabbing

May 12, 2012

After three years of discussions, the UN has agreed a document meant to protect local populations against land grabbing. It should help ensure the right to food.

Woming planting casava in Burundi
Burundi LandwirtschaftImage: picture alliance/africamediaonline

When big investors buy up land, small farmers are often driven from the land that feeds them. On Friday (11.05.2012) the 128 countries in the UN Committee on World Food Security unanimously adopted policies to protect the local population.

The voluntary guidelines specify how soil and land use rights, fisheries and forests should be handled. They are intended to increase transparency in land investment, give residents a greater say and especially to strengthen the position of the local small farmers. Often, they have only informal land rights - and no official land titles.

"The key point is that all rights for people to use land and other resources should be recognized, and that these people have proof. And they cannot easily lose these rights overnight because someone else may have more money or more influence," said Babette Wehrmann, responsible for climate, energy use and rights at the FAO.

Up to 83 million hectares of land have been sold or leased to investors since 2000 - especially in Africa. The International Land Coalition, an alliance of non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, operates a website on which land investments can be followed. However, because many deals are not disclosed, the land-matrix database is far from complete, the ILC's Michael Taylor says. Even so, some trends can be identified: African countries are of particular concern, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Targeted investments in countries with weak legislation

These countries are particularly vulnerable "because they have weak policies and weak land ownership legislation. The international investors sought out the most vulnerable countries where it was worthwhile to invest because of the fertile ground," says Frank Brassel, rural development expert at Oxfam.

According to the Land Matrix the major investors include India, China and the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Even these countries have now agreed to the voluntary guidelines.

The ILC sees more risks than opportunities for local people in the land deals that are currently being negotiated, Taylor said. It would make most sense for investors to work with small farmers. Many countries are now worrying about new approaches to strengthen farmers' rights, Taylor says.

"Countries such as Madagascar and Ethiopia have begun to issue certificates to confirm the ownership of land, and while they are not the same as a (legal ownership) title, they still ensure ownership of the land and only cost a fraction of the price," says Taylor. "In Madagascar, the cost for a small farmer who wants to certify his land has fallen from 600 dollars to 15 dollars, or about 12 euros."

This certificate assures the farmers that they can continue to cultivate "their" land. Because if big investors oust the local population, they lose twice: First, they can no longer grow anything, and second, the products are then mostly exported. So-called "flex crops" are especially popular - plants such as palm oil, soya beans and sugar cane - that can be sold according to market demand as a biofuel or food, says Taylor.

Local farmers are often forced off their land

And it would be a mistake to think that investors are looking for idle land, says Kerstin Nolte, an expert on land grabbing at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA).

"Investors are, of course, looking for land that is very fertile and is close to infrastructure. And that is usually populated," says Nolte. "This means that it often involves expulsions."

Nolte traveled to Zambia, Kenya and Mali for field studies. In Zambia, traditional local authorities decide which family cultivates which piece of land.

"When the chief performs his role well in the traditional sense, then he will negotiate with the investor and consult with his people. These chiefs are only slightly better off, which means they do not have very much money, property or land" Nolte said. "That means the system is very susceptible to corruption, both because there's no one monitoring the chief and because there are a lot of money or valuables coming in from the outside." Nolte says that this has led to much communal land in Zambia being transferred to commercial agriculture.

The rapid growth of land grabbing in recent years has depended in particular on the fact that food prices have risen dramatically since 2007. "This has led to two major groups seeing that it pays to invest in land: the first are the Gulf countries and emerging economies such as China and India. They want to secure their future food supply by buying or leasing huge areas of land in weaker countries," Brassel said.

"The other group is traditional investors, who have also seen that it pays to invest in land, for food and for biofuel, as both promise to be lucrative businesses for the future."

The largest land grabbers are not necessarily foreign investors. "We hear from our member organizations working in countries such as these it is the local elites who are responsible for the largest land scarcity. The cumulative effect of many people acquiring small plots of land for speculative purposes may be greater than that of two investors who purchase vast areas of land," Taylor said.

More transparency?

The experts agree the voluntary guidelines of the UN member states are now an important first step to strengthen the situation of the local population and create more transparency. The guidelines can help to set a certain standard for the local population.

Although they are voluntary, the guidelines could put a lot of positive developments into motion, Brassel says. Oxfam has seen positive effects of the 2004 voluntary guidelines for the human right to food, he says. Even so, Oxfam would have liked to expand the newly adopted guidelines against land grabbing. "We should have not only applied the guidelines to land, but also to water resources," he said.

"We would have liked a statement at the beginning that says, in the next three years we will have a moratorium on large land investments to be able to apply these guidelines on-site in the most affected countries first."

The protection of small farmers now depends on the extent to which the individual states consider the voluntary guidelines to be binding.

Author: Sarah Steffen / sgb
Editor: Gregg Benzow