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Report: Global Land Grab Efforts Will Lead to "Widespread Civil Unrest"

“Local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa”

Common Dreams staff

A report out today from the Rights and Resources Initiative states that global land grab efforts will lead to "widespread civil unrest" unless the rights of people who have loved on those lands are taken into consideration.

Conflicts have already occurred over land grabs and the current disregard to community members' rights creates situations for more conflict, the group says:

“Controversial land acquisitions were a key factor triggering the civil wars in Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and there is every reason to be concerned that conditions are ripe for new conflicts to occur in many other places,” said Jeffrey Hatcher, director of global programs for the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), which sponsored an expert panel today at the Royal Society on the trends shaping rural lands and rights worldwide.

In presenting the results of an analysis of tenure rights in 35 African countries, by international land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily, Hatcher noted that despite the clear potential for bloodshed, “local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa.” Alden Wily’s review found that the majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land, including forests, rangelands or marshlands, are claimed by states, but held in common by communities, affecting “a minimum” of 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa. “Every corner of every state has a customary owner,” Alden Wily concluded.

“local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa”

* * *

The Guardian reports:

Last year the International Land Coalition (ILC) estimated that the global rush for land had claimed more than 200m hectares between 2000 and 2010, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa.

But, according to RRI, few largescale enterprises have been established, and so communities might not yet realise the land they use has been sold or leased.

* * *

From the report:

Land-grabbing has become recognized as a global phenomenon. In 2011, both Oxfam and the International Land Coalition estimated that more than 200 million hectares had been bought or leased by agri-businesses since 2001—more than four times a previous estimate by the World Bank. Responding to growing alarm, in October the United Nations Committee on World Food Security discussed voluntary guidelines to protect communities. To the anger of human rights campaigners, however, it postponed a decision until 2012.

Land-grabbing has been triggered by concerns about food security, coupled with the lure of rising world food prices. Most of the grabs have been for state lands, including pastures, forests, and wetlands, most of which are the customary property of communities. Two-thirds of the reported land grabs have been in Africa, where nearly 700 million people live on land that is customarily owned but has insecure tenure under statutory law. Most of this land is deemed — falsely — by governments to be “empty” or “underused”.

* * *

The report goes on to note that though commonly referred to as "land grabs," water is taken as well:

Land-grabbing is often also accompanied by water-grabbing. In Mali, for example, tens of thousands of hectares of land along the banks of the Niger River have been leased to Chinese and South African sugar corporations. Sugar is one of the world’s thirstiest crops, and one of the lease contracts says that all the lease’s irrigation needs must be met before any others are taken care of. The schemes take grazing lands but also threaten to dry out the downstream Inner Niger Delta wetlands. The 1.4 million people there rely on annual flooding for traditional recession agriculture, fisheries, and wet pastures. In late 2011, drought halved the flooded area, triggering a mass migration. Some 30% of the water that should have been reaching the wetlands was being diverted by up-river agricultural projects.


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With water shortages the main limiting factor on farm output in an estimated one-quarter of the world, water grabs are set to grow.

With water shortages the main limiting factor on farm output in an estimated one-quarter of the world, water grabs are set to grow.

In April of last year, peasant rights group La Via Campesina along with Right Livelihood Award-winning group GRAIN, among others, slammed efforts by the World Bank and other groups to repackage land grabs as "responsible agricultural investments."

* * *

Nervous about the potential political backlash from the current phase of land grabbing, a number of concerned governments and agencies, from Japan to the G-8, have stepped forward to suggest criteria that could make these deals acceptable. The most prominent among these is the World Bank-led Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that Respect Rights, Livelihoods and Resources (RAI). The RAI were jointly formulated by the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They consist of seven principles that investors may wish to voluntarily subscribe to when conducting large-scale farmland acquisitions (see box). It is noteworthy that the RAI principles were never submitted for approval to the governing bodies of these four institutions.

RAI (or seven principles for "win-win" landgrabbing):

1. Land and resource rights: Existing rights to land and natural resources are recognized and respected.
2. Food security: Investments do not jeopardize food security, but rather strengthen it.
3. Transparency, good governance and enabling environment: Processes for accessing land and making associated investments are transparent, monitored, and ensure accountability.
4. Consultation and participation: Those materially affected are consulted and agreements from consultations are recorded and enforced.
5. Economic viability and responsible agro-enterprise investing: Projects are viable in every sense, respect the rule of law, reflect industry best practice, and result in durable shared value.
6. Social sustainability: Investments generate desirable social and distributional impacts and do not increase vulnerability.
7. Environmental sustainability: Environmental impacts are quantified and measures taken to encourage sustainable resource use, while minimizing and mitigating the negative impact.

The main RAI pushers (since 2009):
EU, FAO, G8, G20, IFAD Japan, Switzerland, UNCTAD, US, World Bank

In April 2010, some 130 organizations and networks from across the world, including some of the most representative alliances of farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk, denounced the RAI initiative. Their statement debunked RAI as a move to try to legitimize land grabbing and asserted that facilitating the long-term corporate (foreign and domestic) takeover of rural people's farmlands is completely unacceptable no matter which guidelines are followed.

This statement was endorsed by many more groups and social movements from around the world following its release. Shortly after, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food [Olivier De Schutter] publicly criticized RAI for being "woefully inadequate" and said, "It is regrettable that, instead of rising to the challenge of developing agriculture in a way that is more socially and environmentally sustainable, we act as if accelerating the destruction of the global peasantry could be accomplished responsibly."

* * *

The UN has more on land grabs from De Schutter:

Mr. De Schutter stressed that harmful investments to the detriment of local populations can only be warded off by securing the underlying rights of farmers, herders and fisherfolk, and he called on States to be wary of the dangers of speculation over land and concentration of ownership when land rights are transferred to investors offering to ‘develop’ farmland.

“We must escape the mental cage that sees large-scale investments as the only way to ‘develop’ agriculture and to ensure stability of supply for buyers,” he said.

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