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'Land grabbing' - opportunity or threat?

The food crisis of 2008 shocked the world. Low food stocks, high prices and failing trade revealed the precarious nature of food supply even in powerful and wealthy countries. The reaction has been swift: across the developing world, rich countries are buying or leasing large areas of farmland to grow food for their own people. In Sudan alone, South Korea has acquired 700,000 hectares to produce wheat, and a Chinese company has secured 2.8 million ha for biofuel production. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that 15-20 million hectares of land in developing countries is currently under negotiation, although exact figures for how much has already been leased or bought are not known.

As foreign interests take control of farmland in Africa, can benefits be shared with local people? (WRENmedia)
As foreign interests take control of farmland in Africa, can benefits be shared with local people?
WRENmedia

As wealthy governments and private sector investors scramble for soil, ethical concerns regarding the scale and terms of these deals have been raised. While the potential benefits of international foreign investment are recognised, there is general agreement that some form of regulation and capacity building is needed, to ensure that the opportunities are maximised, benefits shared and threats reduced. These issues came under discussion at two recent events in Washington and Geneva*. Participants offered New Agriculturist their Points of view.

Dangerous deals

What I find so striking is how these deals could be so beneficial, yet so dreadful, at the same time. There is something highly disturbing about outside governments and investors growing crops in poor countries and then whisking them right out again. And of course small farmers could face major threats to their livelihoods, and the intensive agricultural production that could result raises big ecological questions.
Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Associate, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

African governments are trading away their best land for one time investments - Africa now has new landlords and they are not smallholder farmers.
Akin Adesina, Vice President (Policy and Partnerships), Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

Smallholders' rights to land could be compromised if they are not protected by governments (WRENmedia)
Smallholders' rights to land could be compromised if they are not protected by governments
WRENmedia

There are economic, political, social and ethical concerns surrounding these investments. They have been branded as neo-colonialism. You can imagine a worst-case scenario where you get some wealthy foreign investor acquiring land in a poor food-insecure developing country, imposing a model of agricultural production, which is capital intensive, chemical intensive, perhaps based on imported inputs, perhaps also environmentally damaging. Many of these concerns are well-founded.
David Hallam, Deputy Director, Trade and Markets Division, Food and Agriculture Organisation, (FAO)

Food security would be jeopardised if land that is currently in use for local production and local consumption is used entirely for export. The food availability of the nation would then be reduced.
Joachim von Braun, Director General, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

I am extremely concerned about the potential consequences on the realization of human rights. This relates to the lack of transparency in the negotiations process, the failure to consult or compensate affected populations, as well as the potential effects on access to land and natural resources, which in turn has implications for the rights to food, water, adequate standards of living, housing and working conditions.
Zoë Goodman, Programme Officer, 3D

The politics of land

There is an incomplete understanding of what land means in Africa. Land isn't just a material, economic resource in Africa, it's cultural, it's sentimental, and it's also political. Land was one of the strongest symbols of African dispossession during the colonial era. Many of today's large scale agribusiness investors are imperilled because they ignored this.
Chido Makunike, Agricultural Exporter and Consultant, Senegal

Land dispossessions are a human rights violation. Our key concern is that investors are generally being granted land by the government, they are not negotiating or discussing with people on the ground. It is naïve for investors to think they can take away so much land and not face a backlash.
Michael Taylor, Global Policy and Africa Programme Manager, International Land Coalition

Land in Africa is closely linked to identity; selling large amounts of land could provoke a serious backlash (WRENmedia)
Land in Africa is closely linked to identity; selling large amounts of land could provoke a serious backlash
WRENmedia

The majority of agricultural land in Africa is not titled. These customary land rights can be quite secure within communities but if outside interests do not recognize customary land rights then literally millions of small-scale pastoralists and farmers have the potential to lose their land. And it is not only their livelihoods but in many cases their identity, in their association with the land.
Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

Land can't simply be transacted in terms of cash. What you have are very strong cultural associations with land. When land is taken, the value can't be realised in the way that communities expect because they value land in non-monetary terms.
Amar Inamdar, Principal Specialist Ombudsman with the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, World Bank

Advice for investors

What is so interesting is how few African voices there are. As an investor it is foolish. You propose to invest in a country you don't know anything about and you don't want to go and speak to the local people. I do not understand from a purely business perspective how that can make sense.
Chido Makunike

The absolutely fundamental thing is the way that this is executed: sensitivities to local engagement, understanding the operating environment, taking time to meet with all the relevant people at local, regional and national government level, and understanding how to manage those relationships.
Carl Atkin, Partner and Head of Research, Bidwells Agribusiness, UK

First, don't treat a community as one homogenous entity. It's not good enough to get approval from the government without trying to understand how communities relate to their land, both formally and informally. Until one has a stronger understanding of that, one is really playing in the dark. The second thing is ensuring that you build relationships with those communities in the long term and create local benefits to ensure that people derive some value from the transaction.
Amar Inamdar, World Bank

Advice for governments

Should expansion of irrigation be a top priority for governments in Africa? (WRENmedia)
Should expansion of irrigation be a top priority for governments in Africa?
WRENmedia

The key is not to say "No" to these investments, but rather to make sure that the policy and legislative framework is in place to make sure that governments maximise the benefits and minimise the risks. The important thing is to strengthen national capability and capacity to police these investments.
David Hallam, FAO

The ideal role for government is to set the right framework that is investor friendly, but that also protects the farmers. Have a good framework in place that is also enforceable. And then, ideally, get out of the way.
Chido Makunike

Governments should give more recognition to their farmers and not pin all their hopes on foreign investors. What is needed is for governments to build roads, put up irrigation, deliver health and education and provide basic infrastructure and services that will allow farmers to farm profitably and progress in life.
Raul Q. Montemayor, National Manager, Federation of Free Farmers Cooperatives Inc, the Philippines

The way forward

Serious environmental and social impact assessments are required before a contract is entered into. Transparency is a requirement, as is community participation. Long term assessments are also required given that water is a diminishing resource in almost all parts of the world. The investment contracts must recognize the pre-eminence of water rights of local subsistence farmers and other water users. If the above are addressed, the community-benefits of these investments must be specified in the contract and not left to trickle-down assumptions.
Howard Mann, Senior International Law Advisor, International Institute for Sustainable Development

Governments and investors need to recognise that people have rights and that they need to be part of the decision making process. There also needs to be an effort to strengthen the collective capacities of organisations of land users, so that they are strong enough to represent their own interests in order to change the government's approach.
Michael Taylor, International Land Coalition

In Witbank, South Africa, an association of smallholders has begun commercial farming, following investment and training (WRENmedia)
In Witbank, South Africa, an association of smallholders has begun commercial farming, following investment and training
WRENmedia

A code of conduct is needed to control the threats. Important elements would include transparency in negotiations and involvement of local people, respect for existing land rights, including customary and common property rights, sharing of benefits, environmental sustainability and then adherence to national trade policies, so that in a year of severe food shortages in the host country, the foreign investor would not be able to export all of the food.
Ruth Meinzen-Dick, IFPRI

A code of conduct would take years of extensive negotiations to develop. And crucially, it would be voluntary. On the other hand, the vast majority of states have already signed at least one of the international human rights covenants, which are legally binding. This means that countries involved are legally bound to ensure that their investment policies, agricultural policies and land policies are designed and implemented in ways that take their poorest and most marginalized citizens into account and do not undermine the realization of human rights.
Zoë Goodman, 3D

Ideally, investment would be used to support existing local food systems and to promote a fair price for local producers. The end result should provide smallholder producers with more choice, more access and more control.
Alexandra Spieldoch, Director, Trade and Global Governance Program, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)

It is good news that the issue is getting rightful attention in major international forums. But there may be even more to gain by strengthening existing mechanisms that regulate and incentivise investments in land and agriculture. For example, lending conditionalities of banks and government development funds, voluntary industry ventures such as the commodity roundtables, national and local government procedures for community consent and environmental and social impact assessments, and of course local communities' and civil society's initiatives to exert their rights and hold investors to account.
Sonja Vermeulen, Director, Programme on Business and Sustainable Development, International Institute for Environment and Development

For the deals to work, they will need to be radically different to those made so far - more transparent, properly regulated, beneficial to local people and shorter. More important still, however, is for Africa to realise its own potential for food production, which would in the long-term negate the need for these deals.
Mark Weston, Policy Consultant

*Land Grab: The Race for the World's Farmland, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington
The Global Land Grab: A Human Rights Approach, 3D, Geneva

Date published: July 2009

 

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