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'Wild, Wild West' Mentality Pervasive as Global Land-Grab Continues

FAO chief says private investors threaten food sovereignty of world's poorest

- Common Dreams staff

In an interview with The Guardian, chief of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) José Graziano da Silva, has compared the acquisition of large agricultural lands by private investors and aggresive hedge funds to the 'wild, wild West' saying that lack of international structures have left countries vulnerable to "land grabbing" that puts some of the world's most vulnerable populations at even greater risk of losing their food sovereignty.

True grit … FAO director general José Graziano da Silva wants major land acquisitions curbed to protect the poor. (Photograph: Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images) "I don't see that it's possible to stop it. They are private investors," said Graziano da Silva in a telephone interview. "We do not have the tools and instruments to stop big companies buying land. Land acquisitions are a reality. We can't wish them away, but we have to find a proper way of limiting them. It appears to be like the wild west and we need a sheriff and law in place."

Oxfam International, which has raised the alarm about land-grabbing in Africa and elsewhere has said that it is not necessarily a problem when wealthy companies invest in agricultural land in poor countries, but "when families are kicked off the land or less food is grown as a result, that's a very big problem indeed."

The problem, according to Oxfam, is that "recent data indicates that at least 80 million hectares of land deals have been identified since 2001 – an area 20 times the size of the Netherlands" and in many cases, "land sold as 'unused' or 'undeveloped' is actually being used by poor families to grow food. These families are often forcibly kicked off the land. Promises of compensation are broken. Often people are violently evicted by hired thugs."

Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam’s Executive Director, said: “The world is facing an unbridled land rush that is exposing poor people to hunger, violence and the threat of a life-time in poverty. The World Bank is in a unique position to stop this from becoming one of the great scandals of the 21st century.

“By implementing a temporary freeze, and reviewing its approach, the Bank can set an example to all investors and governments that could help put a stop to these human rights abuses and ensure that investors genuinely help boost development in some of the poorest communities. Investment should be good news for developing countries – but it is important that it is truly beneficial and does not harm people or consign them to greater poverty, hunger and hardship.”

Speaking to The Guardian, Graziano da Silva said he is doing his best to bring about more co-ordination among the different institutions concerned with food security and suggests the FAO could act like an executive arm of a UN-led group called the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), that includes governments, business and civil society.

The Guardian reports that others share Graziano da Silva 's concernts, adding:

Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, acknowledges the importance of the CFS voluntary guidelines, but points out the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism. He argues that governments in sub-Sahran Africa or south-east Asia with poor governance, or tainted by corruption, will continue to seek to attract investors at all costs.

"The international community should accept it has a role in monitoring whether the rights of land users, as stipulated in the guidelines, are effectively respected," De Schutter told the Guardian. "Since there is no 'sheriff' at global level to achieve this, at the very least, the home states of investors should exercise due diligence in ensuring that private investors over which they can exercise control fully respect the rights of land users. Export credit agencies, for example, should make their support conditional upon full compliance with the guidelines, and in the future, the rights of investors under investment treaties should be made conditional upon the investors acting in accordance with the guidelines."

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