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Land grab or development opportunity?

Is leasing land to foreign farming interests land grabbing or a development opportunity? (© FAO/P. Johnson)
Is leasing land to foreign farming interests land grabbing or a development opportunity?
© FAO/P. Johnson

African farming is in desperate need of investment. Without it, given the pressures of an increasing population, exhaustion of soils and minimal farm infrastructure, millions of smallholder farmers seem condemned to low productivity. Following the food price crisis of 2008, leasing of land to foreign farming interests has boomed, and productivity in these foreign-owned fields is being transformed through irrigation and investment. But is this good news or bad in terms of tackling poverty? Polarised opinions dominate media coverage, but more moderate voices suggest that positives are possible, depending how the land deals are done.

In April 2011, an International Conference on Global Land Grabbing held at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK and co-organised by the Future Agricltures Consortium and the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI). New Agriculturist asked the participants about their concerns over land deals and how they could be regulated and monitored to ensure a pro-poor outcome.

Grave concerns

Land is the main source of livelihood for more than half the world's population (© FAO/Antonello Proto)
Land is the main source of livelihood for more than half the world's population
© FAO/Antonello Proto

Giving land away to investors will result in a type of farming that will have much less powerful poverty-reducing impacts than if access to land and water were improved for the local farming communities. It directs agriculture towards crops for export markets, increasing the vulnerability to price shocks of the target countries; and even where titling schemes seek to protect land users from eviction, it accelerates the development of a market for land rights with potentially destructive effects on livelihoods.
Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Those who are taking the land will also take the water resources, the forests, wetlands, all the wild indigenous plants and biodiversity. Many communities want investments but none of them sign up for losing their ecosystems.
Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South

We are seeing a massive spread of human rights violations. I am referring to forced evictions, contamination of water, destruction of soils, displacement of communities and destruction of local livelihoods. These kinds of policies are systemic violations of the right to food.
Sofia Monsalve, FoodFirst Information and Action Network

Land is the main means of production. It is the main source of livelihood for more than half the world's population. And to be alienating that without proper process and consideration about where those people will go, what they will do, that is a big deal.
Tania Li, University of Toronto

Can small farmers benefit?

Can small farmers benefit? (© FAO/Luca Tommasini)
Can small farmers benefit?
© FAO/Luca Tommasini

We really have to look at the weak institutional arrangements in many developing countries to understand that no matter how many rules we make it is not really feasible to regulate land transactions in a way which ensures that local populations are not dispossessed.
Dzodzi Tsikata, University of Ghana

There are some companies who care about reputational risks and are doing their best to develop ways of investments which protect and recognise local communities' rights. However, there seems to be a larger number of companies who are deliberately targeting areas for investment where governance frameworks are weak and where communities are particularly vulnerable, and land rights and land tenure are not very secure.
Jenny Bromley, Global Witness

If you can get the governance structure right first, and I do emphasis first, and that governance includes people's land tenure and property rights, then we do see opportunities to create linkages between smallholders and commercial investors in ways that are potentially win-win scenarios.
Greg Myers, USAID

This industrial model of agriculture is fundamentally incompatible with smallholder agriculture which everyone agrees is more productive and is the key to solving hunger. The bargaining power of one small farmer compared to a company like Cargill means it is impossible for the farmer to come out a winner of these deals.
Maryam Rahmanian, Centre for Sustainable Development & International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty

Regulating the deals

Voluntary guidelines are not enough because they assume a set of social forces which are not present. This kind of fantasy that you have governments who would have the welfare of the populations at heart is not the real world.
Tania Li

Are voluntary guidelines for governments enough? (© FAO/Rocco Rorandelli)
Are voluntary guidelines for governments enough?
© FAO/Rocco Rorandelli

I don't think that we can trust our governments to get us out of this. Until there's massive protest and social outcry we are not going to see this turned around. We certainly won't see it regulated.
Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director of Food First and the Institute for Food and Development Policy

I don't think that voluntary guidelines alone are enough. They are necessary but not sufficient. I think they can serve a use if they are widely distributed so that companies and state investors know about them, but also farmers' organisations, so they can use them as a negotiating point.
Ruth Meinzen-Dick, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

We have to find ways to reign in, discipline and curb finance capital, governments, donors, international agencies, national and transnational capital. We are arguing very strongly for mandatory and forcible legal principles.
Shalmali Guttal

Having legal instruments at the international level, which you can use to try and hold governments accountable, is really useful. We are working at the level of the UN to try and articulate what types of policies are needed and what types of policies are absolutely unacceptable.
Maryam Rahmanian

Key recommendations

Water impacts of any investment should be made explicit (© FAO/Giulio Napolitano)
Water impacts of any investment should be made explicit
© FAO/Giulio Napolitano

The single most significant intervention is publicising the terms of land deals. Unless local people have access to that information it is very hard to engage in real robust debate and to challenge these deals. But to enable local people to defend themselves against deals or to negotiate, secure land and other resource rights of people living in rural areas is needed, and that means crucially reforming customary tenure systems.
Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies, South Africa

The water impacts of any investment in any land deal should be made explicit. Some kind of mechanism is needed to bring existing water users into an engagement on any deals done on water use, and that shouldn't be a once and for all process, there should be continuing engagement.
Phil Woodhouse, University of Manchester

The role that corruption and governance failures between high level government and business elites play in driving land grabs needs to be brought more strongly to the fore. It is often this corruption which prevents the government from taking the right decisions about protecting local rights and environments.
Jenny Bromley

None of these large scale land deals should be signed until you have proper transparent accounting of what the real costs and the real opportunities are, way into the future.
Tania Li

Alternative pathways to pro-poor growth

One of the mistakes we make is to weigh up whether outside commercial investment is better than the status quo. But the status quo is the product of many years of neglect of smallholder agriculture. What we need to think of is a third alternative: new paths of agricultural growth that are broad based, that are pro-poor and that support smallholder agriculture.
Ruth Hall

Is land reform the best way to address poverty and food production? (© FAO/Giulio Napolitano)
Is land reform the best way to address poverty and food production?
© FAO/Giulio Napolitano

The fact that it is a land grab means that it's undemocratic and is regressive rather than redistributive. What we need is land reform. We need to distribute more land not concentrate it. I think that would best address poverty and food production and distribution.
Eric Holt-Gimenez

Governments should invest more in rural populations and support small farmers to ensure that they get enough credit and enough inputs and enough labour for their work and to also ensure that their crops are well marketed. This does not forget that women are also farmers and it ensures that the young people find in the rural countryside a certain livelihood for the future.
Dzodzi Tsikata

I would stop land leases and land sales to corporations and governments and I would use that land to support food and agricultural production domestically by smallholders. The employment effects and the productive effects of land and ecosystem use should be primarily reaped by those who have stewarded and looked after those lands. Smallholders feed the world.
Shalmali Guttal

Date published: June 2011


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I did doctoral research on smallholder farming systems, and ... (posted by: Ayub Chege)


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