CHANGWON, South Korea - Civil society organisations are calling on governments in developing countries to stop leasing and selling out land to transnational corporations because it leads to land degradation and food insecurity.
Africa is one of the continents where corporations are flocking to lease or buy land for different projects such as mining, growing bio-fuel crops or construction – pushing rural poor communities off of their land.
"You find that the land is repossessed from poor people who are using it for farming to give way to bio-fuel crops or other projects that lead to land degradation," said Khadija-Catherine Razavi, executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Development (CENESTA), a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting sustainable community- and culture-based development that mainly works in Iran and Southwest Asia.
The NGOs representing ordinary people across the globe added their voices at the tenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which drew more than 6,000 delegates from around the world to Changwon, South Korea from Oct. 10 to 21.
They unsuccessfully called for a pronouncement in the Changwon Declaration against the continued grabbing of land throughout Africa and Asia. According to Razavi, over 200 million square metres of land in these regions is already in the hands of multinational corporations.
She added that governments should put a stop to the grabbing of millions of hectares of fertile land from peasants, pastoralists and indigenous people before it is too late. "We’re all talking about land at this conference but there will be nothing to talk about when all the land has been taken away," said Razavi.
While many governments in Africa and Asia claim they are only giving companies barren idle land in their countries, programme coordinator from Friends of the Earth Ghana George Awudi said there is no marginal land in Africa.
"With an increasing population the demand for space and food cannot be overemphasised," said Awudi.
The U.N. estimates that by the year 2050, the world population will have grown to nine billion and will require a food production increase of 70 percent.
Awudi said that in Africa, where food security is a serious concern, expropriating land from poor people cannot be an option for governments. What is worse, land grabbing is competing with desertification where fertile land is turning arid. The U.N. estimates that 12 million hectares of productive land are turning into desert every year.
"What needs to happen is the rehabilitation of dry land, so that it can continue producing food," he said.
He was disturbed by the fact that the global business community formed a partnership with the UNCCD in Changwon, which he said could open a window to more land grabbing.
"Promoting business to combat desertification, land degradation and drought could lead to more land grabs in our countries," said Awudi.
Dry land is in danger, observed Menberu Lulu, chairperson for the Association for Combating Desertification-Ethiopia, because multinational corporations are targeting it under the pretext that it is not useful to communities.
"Then they buy the land at a very low cost and communities do not benefit from their initiatives because once they make their money they are out, without any investment for the people," said Lulu.
However, UNCCD executive secretary Luc Gnacadja said forming a partnership with business will solve the problem rather than perpetuate it. He said the Changwon Initiative on desertification will ensure that business becomes part of the solution, acknowledging that land grabbing is a serious issue, particularly in Africa.
The Initiative is a series of action plans aimed at strengthening scientific findings behind land degradation issues, mobilising resources, forging greater partnerships, particularly with the private sector, and raising awareness on successful sustainable land management efforts around the world.
"Investing in land by the private sector is not always land grabbing because in other instances businesses form partnerships with smallholder farmers to come up with viable projects that benefit communities," said Gnacadja.
He said that bringing in the business community did not mean the UNCCD was ignoring civil society organisations, but that it was trying to bring on board all partners.
George Owour, a representative of the Kenyan government, noted that it is not only business that is taking away land from poor people, but even national governments and affluent individuals.
"Rural people are kicked out of their land by Kenyan people who buy land in rural communities, leave it lying idle and wait for prices to go up, then return to throw out smallholder farmers living there," he said.
He said the rural people who acquire land through the traditional systems are not even aware that they are living on private property until the owners return.
"What’s sad is they also lose in court, because they don’t have title to the land," said Owuor. Governments are also guilty of pushing ordinary people off their fertile land, to give way to developments that leave rural communities poorer than before.
But the Changwon Initiative has done a great deal to accomodate civil society organisations, said Gnacadja, considering that they work with people at the grassroots level.
For instance, civil society organisations will contribute to the country report indicators for the first time in the history of the UNCCD, which entered into force in 1996, said Gnacadja.
They will also participate in the nomination and screening of potential winners of the Land for Life Award launched in Changwon, which is recognition for individuals, businesses or organisations that have made a major effort to fight desertification, land degradation and drought.