Local power against global land rush
There is nothing fair about walking into someone’s business with a big bag of money and even bigger promises. There is nothing fair about walking in to shake hands with the boss, and not even noticing the hardworking employee. There is nothing fair about dealing with bosses who don’t treat their employees fairly.
Last week I was at the seminar The Global Land Rush organised by LANDac, a partnership between several Dutch organisations and their Southern partners involved in development-related research, policy and practice. The presentation of local cases of land grabbing in Senegal, Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Congo, Indonesia and Russia made clear to me that making difference in grabbing and rushing makes no difference for small farmers; in both cases they are not really noticed.
What happens in any large-scale land acquisition is that farmers are overruled by local leaders; and local leaders are persuaded by national or foreign investors. It is all about local power relations.
Conflicts about land are normally solved through mediation of traditional local leaders. Power inequalities are clear and understandable for local people. But with the increased interest in land of foreign investors, land and water points become scarce, conflicts are more intense and more actors are involved in these conflicts. In such cases, it is quite sour that the Swiss Addax Bioenergy boss drinks tea with lots of sugar with the mayor of a district town in Sierra Leone and walks out with a contract for 26,000 hectares of land for the production of sugarcane.
In Africa, almost 50 million hectares of land have been claimed to be handed out in land deals with foreign investors since 2006. Most of the biggest deals are in Ethiopia, Sudan and Mali. Being deprived of their land and misguided by false promises is really a nasty experience for local people, as can be seen in this video on Ethiopia.
But how many nasty deals are really being dealt in for instance West Africa? Joost Nelen of the Dutch development organization SNV dared to question last week the number of deals. Many are planned in West Africa but not realised. Are we stereotyping and blowing things up? A recent publication ‘Land deals in Africa: What is in the contracts?’ by Cotula (IIED) mentions that media reports often overestimate the scale of land deals.
But even if we are not sure, the problem is there and it is massive. Academics constantly talk about it, practitioners talk about it and policymakers want to. And politicians? They do talk, compared to the situation a couple of years ago, when everything was still too sensitive to mention. So we can say that a lot has changed already... But is there still time to talk?
I think we are ready for a next phase. One thing we can learn from all the deals (both positive and negative cases) is that legal empowerment of local landholders is key, as Cotula mentions in his publication. I think that’s enough to know and act upon. What’s the deal? Practitioners can go and help men and women to organise and get stronger. The same Cotula has collected tools that work in legal empowerment of small-scale farmers. Let’s help farmers claim their part of local power… What are we waiting for?
Are we waiting for a next round of research money? The president of the LANDac told us she was so glad to see researchers, practitioners and policymakers together and claimed that there are no differences anymore, for we are all academics. But (being an academic) I got lost in paradigms and soft power discourses during the presentation of four new land-rush research programmes that day. I know that there is this (inter)national rush for research money, but let’s go for action in the global land rush! And for those who wants to study first: the new edition 54.1 of Development is all about global land grabs.
Text: Mireille Vermeulen