Population growth, the increasing consumption of a global elite, and an international legal system skewed in favour of largescale investors are fuelling a worldwide rush for land that is unfolding faster than previously thought and is likely to continue, according to the largest study of international land deals to date.
Researchers estimate that more than 200m hectares of land – over eight times the size of the UK – have been sold or leased between 2000 and 2010. But although the food price crisis of 2007-08 may have triggered a boom in international land deals, the study argues that a much broader set of factors – linked to population growth and the rise of emerging economies – is raising the prospect of "a new era in the struggle for, and control over, land in many areas of the global south".
Forty civil society and research groups fed into the global commercial pressures on land research project, co-ordinated by the International Land Coalition (ILC), which draws on a decade of data to identify and analyse trends in large land acquisitions, and highlights the role of governments in brokering deals that may marginalise rural communities and jeopardise the future of family farming in favour of big industrial projects. This is the most comprehensive study to date of international land deals, pulling together findings from investigations around the world.
Over the last year a number of reports have focused on cases of foreign investors "grabbing" large tracts of land in poor African countries to grow cheap food for their own populations. But, according to a study published by the ILC on Wednesday, rich national investors play a much larger role than previously thought, food is not the main focus of these deals, and African governments are not the only ones signing away large tracts of land.
Data collected by researchers show that around 40% of land acquired over the last decade is intended for biofuel production. In comparison, 25% is for food crops and another 27% for mining, tourism, industry and forestry. But the focus of land deals also varies by region: In Africa, 66% of land deals cross-referenced by researchers are intended for biofuel production, compared with 15% for food crops. Meanwhile, food production seems more significant in Latin America (27%), along with mineral extraction (23%).
The report also notes that regional dealings may be on the rise: in south-east Asia, for example, 75% of reported land deals have been struck by regional players, and South African investors have acquired an estimated 40.7m hectares of African land since 2009. The full data from the Land Matrix research project will be published in 2012.
Though policymakers seem to have recently warmed to the potential role of family farms, the report says enthusiasm for industrial-scale agriculture continues to sideline small farmers.
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Many developing countries, under pressure from the IMF, the World Bank and a number of government aid agencies, are going to great lengths to attract and legally protect foreign investment in agriculture and extractive industries, setting up sophisticated specialised agencies to promote investment opportunities and offering benefits such as tax breaks and low prices, said the ILC.
This week the US aid agency, USAid is hosting an international conference to promote foreign investment in South Sudan. Research by the US-based Oakland Institute suggests that almost 9% of South Sudan's land had already been leased or bought by investors prior to the country's independence in July this year.
Wednesday's study argues that international trade regimes are overwhelmingly skewed in favour of international investors, while fewer and less effective international mechanisms exist to safeguard the rights of the rural poor. Meanwhile, the common lack of formal, legal titles to land is heightening the vulnerability of rural communities.
"As governments own the land, it is easy for them to lease large areas to investors, but the benefits for local communities or national treasuries are often minimal," said Lorenzo Cotula, of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. "This highlights the need for poor communities to have stronger rights over the land they have lived on for generations."
Last year, the G20 summit in Seoul encouraged all countries and companies to uphold a set of principles for responsible agricultural investment, developed by the UN and the World Bank. But critics argue that voluntary international agreements can amount to little more than window-dressing. Earlier this year African leaders gathered in Lusaka, Zambia, to discuss ways to regulate land-based foreign direct investment.
Resistance to large land deals is growing. In August, residents of Mukaya Payam, in South Sudan's Central Equatoria state, launched a campaign against what would have been the country's largest land deal – a 49-year lease of 600,000 hectares by an American company. Last month, hundreds of smallholder farmers and civil society activists converged on Selingue, in southern Mali, for the first international farmers' conference to tackle the global rush for land.
The ILC says: "Optimistically, it may even be hoped that rural communities in many parts of the world are able to finally achieve secure access to and control over their land through struggles catalysed by the increasing demand for it. It is to be hoped that the rush for land will act as a wake-up call, provoking a reconsideration of the path we are on."