In a rush for land
Astonishingly, most of these land deals go unreported. This is one of the findings presented in the newly released report by the International Land Coalition (ILC): “Land Rights and the Rush for Land”.
The report is the result of an extensive research project on the global commercial pressures on land, coordinated by the ILC and conducted by more than 40 stakeholders. The report presents the evidence – so far – of these different stakeholders monitoring large scale-land deals, including the voices of land users themselves. It describes the key features of land grabs, or “land rush” as it is put in the report, as well as the outcomes, contextual factors and responses needed from government, civil society and development partners.
Land grabbing is not new, but it happens in much more different ways than was previously assumed and on a much larger scale, particularly since the food crisis in 2008. This was also recognised in the report recently released by Oxfam, “Land and Power”, for example, as can be read in the new issue of Farming Matters: “Securing the right to land” (Robin Palmer provides an interesting overview of recent coverage on land grabs in his column). Despite increased attention, the problem seems to be getting out of hand.
The ILC report states that the costs of the global land rush are “disproportionately carried by the rural poor”. The report confirms that the rural poor are not only evicted from their lands in some land deals, but often their livelihoods suffer because they lose access to common property like forests or grasslands.
Women are particularly vulnerable, as their land rights are not recognised or they have little influence on decision making. Moreover, governments often make tax exemptions for foreign investors, which eliminates the major public benefit from what is in fact an exploitation of natural resources. The acquisitions of natural ecosystems – forests, grasslands, mangroves – which are then converted to farmland, mines or areas for tourism, lead to a loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity.
The myth that large scale land acquisition is needed to produce food for an increasing population, is set right by the ILC report: around 80% of the deals of which the commodity is known, are for not for food production but for biofuels, mineral extraction, industry, tourism or forest conversions. Another argument for these land deals that the report undermines is that the investment in land will bring about new jobs. The study found that the estimates for new jobs created are often exaggerated, since the jobs that are made available are often low-paid and insecure.
Population growth and growing consumption by a minority in the world are the main drivers for the increasing competition for land, the report states. Speculative capital also plays a major role (as is explained further in the column by Eric Holt Gimenez).
However, in the report much attention is given to the role of (poor) governance in exacerbating the problem of land competition, or at the very least in allowing it to affect so many people adversely. The decision-making over land and investments are failing to prevent these negative impacts. Where governance is weak and democratic participation and accountability are lacking, the elite have the power to make decisions and be the ultimate beneficiaries of land acquisitions.
Also, agricultural development policy, both nationally and internationally, systematically benefits large- scale commercial ventures over smallholders. The abilities of smallholders to compete against these large agri-businesses and to influence agricultural and trade policies are further disabled in a vicious circle where the land grabs only worsen their situation.
“The competition for land is becoming increasingly global and increasingly unequal,” ILC director Madiodio Niasse writes in the foreword to the report (also read an interview with Mr Niasse). Resources are getting increasingly scarce, so the choices made today have a huge impact on the opportunities of the future. That is why action has to be taken today. It is astounding how these facts about land grabs can be known and still governments promote foreign or other large scale investments in land as something that will “benefit the population”. Not the poor rural population, that is for sure. At least not as long as they are not included in a serious way in decision-making and recognised as valuable and rightful users of land.
Luckily, the report comes with ready policy recommendations. Of course, policy makers must start from the assumption that there is no “idle” or “unused” land. The users of all land must be considered and regarded as having “a moral right of possession”. Also, efforts must be made to provide the majority of the rural poor, who do not have (legal) entitlements to land, with legal individual or communal ownership of land and water resources. But even if national or international laws are put in place, transparency in land acquisitions are needed to be able to hold people accountable to laws, contracts and guidelines.
So what if (international) policy fails small scale land users? The new issue of Farming Matters explores responses by people and organisations to ensuring land rights in the face of increased competition for land, not just governments. There are examples of farmers taking matters into their own hands (van den Berg et al.), but the impeding environment makes it difficult for them. Land rights need to be recorded and recognised. Local authorities play an important role in this, as Thea Hilhorst explains.
The conclusion of this report is that we are at a crossroads: the future of rural societies, land based production and ecosystems are pushed in a direction that is “far from optimal”. Something has to be done.
Text: Laura Eggens