The new land rush in Africa: An interview with Michael Taylor of the ILC

Michael Taylor (Photo: ILC)

Society for International Development | June 7, 2010

AZ: It is suggested that a global land rush is taking place. What does it mean? Which evidences and feedbacks does the coalition receive from its members?

MT: The rush for land is not new. During the colonial period and even after colonialism people went looking for land in the south, in Africa, Latin America and Asia. In a sense it is an old process. Investments in agriculture and the creation of big plantation date back to the 1920-30s and the 1950-70s.  So large-scale land acquisitions of land in the south is not new. What you see now – that is in some ways similar but also different from previous rush for land – is the scale of the phenomenon. There are many companies that are acquiring hundred thousand and even million hectares of land. This is a very large scale.

Another difference is the level of transparency: these pieces of land have been sold or leased often without processes that are open and accountable to the public. Key people within the State – whether it is a president or a minister – are making these decisions, but it is very difficult to find a contract since in many cases contracts are not made publicly available.

In many cases governments are directly involved in these investments. While  in the past the interest behind the investment was to increase agriculture produce for local or international market, investments are now often linked to food and energy security. So Governments from countries that are not able to feed themselves like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, are directly acquiring the land to grow food for themselves, not for the host country in which they own that land.

This introduces a different set of political and geopolitical dynamics taking place and it highlights how the use of land is basically shifting from being a productive resource to becoming a source of food security, on a much bigger scale than it was before.

AZ: What are the reasons for this pressure? Beyond food, I see natural resources, water, oil as you said, mines, timber… is it correct?

MT: Yes, exactly. It is very important to be aware of the wider nature of demand for land, water and other natural resources. The press mostly points out food production and agrofuel production – which are both very important, but there are also other drivers of large-scale land acquisitions in the south, like minerals, timber, carbon sequestration, and tourism. Taking the example of the food sector, food consumption globally is expected to double over the next 40 years. These different factors converge in driving increasing interest in investing in land. At the same time, there is today an increased ability for free trade across countries and across regions, which facilitates such investments. Free Trade Agreements signed between developing countries and investor countries, accelerate the process by removing barriers to investment, including in the land sector.

AZ: Are there regulations to prevent social and environment dumping.

MT: There are regulations: the domestic law of these countries dictates what is appropriate and what is not. The problem is that in many cases you deal with very large and powerful corporations, getting around domestic law, for example not doing proper environmental  impact assessments before the investment takes place.

In many countries where these investments are taking place, governments are very weak, so the ability and will to enforce domestic law – even when it exists – may not be that strong. The result is that  investment agreements become the primary regulator of what is going on. I am not a specialist on this, but it is reported by some of ILC’s members that in many cases the investment agreements are strongly biased to the needs of the investor rather than those of the host country. For example, some agreements are driven by investors who want to produce food in order to export all of it to their own country. This may not be a problem when there is a food surplus locally. But  what  happens when there is a famine? The agreements often do not include clauses to safeguard the host country, dictating for instance that in case of famine investors have to keep a certain proportion of that food within the country and not export all of it.

AZ: Different definitions and interpretations of land rush (from land grab to investments) come up depending on parts and counterparts involved  (governments, civil society, donor agency, private investors,  etc). How to demystify the issue? Can you clarify such confusion?

MT: Like anything, the choice of words depends on how you want to present a situation. ‘Land grabbing’ is used often to imply that these transactions are not entirely legitimate, that there is an element of illegal  grabbing going on. In some cases this is indeed correct, although not in others. In ILC we simply refer to land transactions, and those transactions can take place legally or illegally.  In many cases the land that is being taken is not empty land. It is land that is used and has people on it. There is no good agricultural land that is simply unused: it is either important for biodiversity, for instance a protected area, or it has got people farming on it, using it for grazing livestock, etc. The problem is that in many cases, the land does not legally belong to the local people using it. Legally it belongs to the state, as it is classed as state land. When the state makes an agreement with an investor to grant such land,  it is not breaking its own laws, as it legally holds title to that land. The problem is that the customary rights and ownership or use systems of local land-users is not recognised. And this is where the change needs to take place: there needs to be a recognition that local people have a legitimate right to decide on the use and ownership of the land they live on.

I wrote a paper* last year with colleague of mine where we tried to categorise the different ways in which land is acquired: in some ways it is pure land grabbing, people going out and enclosing big areas of land for themselves. Where land grabbing is taking place, it is not only by foreign investors, but also by elites within the country: rich people take big areas of land for themselves with the hope to sell it on to investors or to go into joint ventures with them. In southern Sudan we have cases of agreements between politically well-connected individuals and American companies, which are not following really any law.

Latin America is another interesting example. Because there isn’t much unregistered or state land, land concentration is taking place through the market mechanisms. Big companies are acquiring land from small scale producers, from whom they are either leasing it or buying it. But the prices are often well below the value of the land. So the same process is occurring but through the market: a concentration of land in the hands of few and few people, with investors taking the land at the expense of poor people. Technically you can not say it is land grabbing, it is capitalism. It is about people owning land but lacking the means to fully develop the productive capacity over the land and finding themselves with no options other than sell it.

AZ: Well, we can define it a perverse form of capitalism due to asymmetries and distortions of the market.

MT: Precisely.

AZ: If land rush is not a new phenomenon in history, why is it of relevance at this point in time? what are the major concerns with respect to protection and defence of people’s rights?

MT: The rush for land is relevant at this time because we are in a changing world where economic opportunities and geopolitical relations are changing. Land is a big source of conflict in many countries in Africa and all over the world. If land concentration continues to the extent it has been, these areas will become conflict areas in the future. The key thing is that these are not empty lands: the people who lose their rights will find themselves in worse poverty than they were, and this will bring social and political discontent. You correctly identify the key issues as a question of local people’s rights: right to food, right to shelter, right to land, right to descent employment conditions. All these rights are made vulnerable in this kind of situation. If at a certain point, the right to land is recognised – and investors realize they do not only negotiate with the state, but they also need to negotiate with local people and that negotiation needs to happen in an open, fair and hopefully equitable environment – then there is a possibility for something positive to come out of it for local people as well.

There are cases in Eastern and Western Africa of local people working voluntarily together with investors. They do not acquire land, but simply reach agreements with local people about the amount to produce which will be then acquired and sold. These experiences show that there is no need to take pieces of land in order to have an investment. Local people may not have access to markets or technology or anything else they may need in order to produce on a much  bigger scale – but they do have land and as long as they have land, they have the asset and the productive means to work with investors.

AZ: Which responses can be put in place by whom? Can bilateral or multilateral regulations be envisaged? at what level? or is it an utopia perhaps?

MT: There has been lots of discussion around this and I think the general consensus is that it is not possible or feasible to put in place multilateral regulations, meaning enforceable regulations because it will take so long to come up with some form of protocol or multinational agreement.  A number of inter-governmental ILC members have proposed to set in place principles for responsible investments, as a benchmark for socially and environmentally responsible investments. This for example has been promoted by WB, FAO, IFAD – which are all ILC members – and UNCTAD which is not ILC member. At the same time, we have other members that are saying there should be different principles: the WB and its partners have already put out what they call ‘principles for responsible agricultural investments’; the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Oliver De Schutter has proposed 11 principles; and organisations like BMZ and IFPRI are proposing principles as well. On the other hand, organisations like Via Campesina are against the definition of such principles for responsible investments because from their point of view these investments are fundamentally undermining local needs and cannot be responsible.

AZ: more radical positions…

MT: yes….ILC is actually trying to promote some sort of dialogue between these different proposals. We see the danger that some organisations might rush and put in place a global set of principles without consulting  the most important stakeholders that is to say: the people who live on the land, women’s organisation, farmers organisation, indigenous communities, livestock keepers organisations. They need to be part of this debate. We have just launched a dialogue with three big regional farmers organisations from Latin America, West Africa and Asian, together with Action Aid, with the aim of finding some convergences and generating a consensus at international level.

AZ: Some African countries experiencing the land rush are every year destination of billion dollars in food aid with large portions of their population unable to access food. How to break this vicious cycle?

MT: The key thing is investing in the small farmers, supporting the local people using the land to produce more food that is affordable locally. I don’t see the big investors from outside being the only solution. They might be part of the solution, but at the end of the day they could cause more poverty or more hunger than they  actually alleviate. So, I think that donors and governments need to invest more in small scale producers who are at the moment producing most of the world food and could be producing even more if they get the right support.

Angela Zarro (SID).

Michael Taylor is Programme Manager, Land Policy and African Region, at the International Land Coalition (ILC). ILC is a global alliance of civil society and intergovernmental organisations promoting secure and equitable access to land for poor people.

* Increasing commercial pressure on land: Building a coordianted response, by Michael Taylor and Tim Bending, ILC secretariat, July 2009
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  • 07 June 2010
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