Revisiting the issue of “land grabbing”


Already we are witnessing increasingly widespread ‘everyday forms of resistance’ by villagers and increasingly organized, widely networked and politically sophisticated campaigns by transnational agrarian and environmental social movements in mounting opposition.


Capital News (Ethiopia) | 27 December 2010

By Alazar K.

‘Land grab’ is the catch-phrase for the explosion of transnational commercial land transactions currently revolving mainly around the production and export of food and biofuels.

Initially deployed by activist groups opposed to such transactions, the meaning of the phrase has been slowly eroding as it gets absorbed into mainstream development currents that see the global land rush as fertile ground for ‘win-win’ development schemes.

What were once reviled as ‘land grabs’, are now increasingly seen as ‘large-scale land investments’. Telling signs of this conceptual drift are found in recent high-profile calls for a ‘code of conduct for land grabbing’ and ‘principles for responsible land grabbing’. Together they signal a shift in the discourse from alarm to acceptance of land grabbing.

Such calls arise out of an optimistic belief that a global rush for land can and ought to be taken as an opportunity for rural development. Multiple stakeholders should unite around a set of basic ‘good practice’-type principles (commonly referred to as the ‘Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investments’ or ‘PRAI’). This would lay the foundation for an international ‘Code of Conduct’ (CoC) to better govern the transactions.

The arguably pragmatic logic behind this vision is illustrated by International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) version of it, unveiled in late 2009 and framed as ‘making virtue out of necessity’. The underlying entrepreneurial spirit is revealed in the World Bank’s September 2010 (Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits?) land grab report with its concluding section entitled ‘Moving from Challenge to Opportunity’.

Predictably, the idea has caught on amongst governments, development aid organizations, research outfits and think-tanks. It is now widely believed that a CoC-PRAI scheme will lead to so-called ‘win-win’ development outcomes. But Saturnino Borras, associate professor of Rural Development Studies at the

International Institute of Studies (ISS) asserted that surely any scheme that guarantees only winners and no losers deserve our skepticism and a closer look.

According to Saturnino Borras, proponents of CoC-PRAI argue that more large-scale investments, especially when these involve smallholders through a variety of joint venture arrangements, are seen as the main solution to persistent (rural) poverty. The benefits are expected to be the following:

Creation of farm/off-farm job employment, the boosting of smallholder incomes, the transfer of needed technology, and an increase in food production, the building-up of rural infrastructure, improved access to basic services and the opening up of export opportunities. There are several parts to the argument.

First, proponents of CoC-PRAI resurrect an old belief in the need for better land management as a way to bring order out of chaos when it comes to land issues and conflicts. But as we will later show the kind of land management envisioned has not proven to be better for the world’s rural population where poverty is most concentrated, nor is it uncontested. In fact, over the past decade or more, so much evidence and resistance has already been built up against the kind of land management envisioned in CoC-PRAI, that it begins to look suspiciously like the proverbial back door.

Second, those in favor of CoC-PRAI draw on new revelations based on high-tech satellite imagery of the existence of so-called ‘reserve agricultural land’ – a vast global reserve of land ready to be harnessed for ‘rural development’ (or at least their version of it).

Third, CoC-PRAI proponents stress the need to recognize the potentially harmful social and environmental impacts – re conceptualized as ‘risks’ – of new large-scale investments in agriculture. These include: Neglect of land users, short-term speculation, absence of consultation, corruption, environmental harm, violent conflict over land rights, polarization and instability, undermining food security and loss of livelihoods, and failure to keep promises (local jobs, facilities, compensation) (World Bank 2010). While acknowledging land grabbing’s harmful effects is essential; reframing them as ‘risks’ is subterfuge. Once harmful social and environmental impacts are understood as ‘risks’ (in effect mere ‘side-effects’ of an essentially beneficial ‘cure’), they can then be ‘managed’. Proper risk-management, we are told, is what makes achieving the ‘larger good’ of rural development possible, great! However, in practice who gets to decide which larger good is – or is not – worth the risk? And who gets to decide which risks are worth taking or not? In the end, the envisioned large-scale investments are not seen as involving direct impacts that are so severe and unjust that they call into question the very validity of the ‘cure’ itself – e.g., the land deals themselves or the development model being pursued through this type of foreign direct investment.

For those who still choose to encourage foreign direct investment in the form of big land deals, one element of successful risk avoidance or management involves ensuring the proper policy environment in the host countries. The World Bank’s September 2010 formulation is very similar to IFPRI’s and an earlier joint formulation by the World Bank, FAO, IFAD and UNCTAD (2010): (i) rights recognition, (ii) voluntary transfers, (iii) transparency, (iv) technical and economic viability, and (v) environmental and social sustainability

In sum, for advocates of CoC-PRAI a beneficial policy environment would include:

(i) well-defined land rights and authorities, with an emphasis on a private property rights system; (ii) clear identification of land that is available and clear mechanisms for transfer of public land rights; (iii) improved investment climates through rule of law and contract security; (iv) evidence-based agricultural policies in relation to incentives, markets, technologies, and rural infrastructure; (v) facilitation of contract-growing and out-grower schemes; (vi) enhanced market information systems; (vii) improved knowledge and extension services (including rural banking); and – last but not least – (viii) decentralized (community-based) negotiation. Additionally, in order to promote faster, cheaper and clearer land sales of public lands – and avoid corruption in land deals, the World Bank (2010) is pushing for the adoption of land auctions.

None of these items is new; many have been on the agenda of mainstream development institutions for years (although admittedly the call for land auction is something relatively new and bold for the World Bank in the current context). What is new is the other element of the proposed risk management: An international CoC-PRAI that would govern the making and keeping of transnational land deals in ways that protect local people and environments, while still allowing them to be profitable in the conventional sense. This is the magic bullet in the new narrative on land grabbing.

According to Saturnino Borras, to get a better grasp of land issues today requires unpacking the vague category of ‘land use change’. Global land use today is changing not just in one direction (e.g. in favor of food or biofuel production for export); but instead it has many faces. A fuller understanding of land use change brought about by transnational commercial land deals requires empirical research and theorizing that are able to cover the breadth and diversity of the actually existing social conditions and dynamics.

The contemporary land grab phenomenon has started to gain momentum and is rapidly expanding. Institutional support for this process is varied and widespread, but largely justified by calls for the need for and feasibility of regulating land grab via a code of conduct or a set of principles on responsible land grabbing. Most recently, this has been expressed in the September 2010 World Bank land grab report. Still, the affected rural poor communities and their allies are not likely to simply accept the land grabbing process in the way the World Bank and its supporters might suppose. Already we are witnessing increasingly widespread ‘everyday forms of resistance’ by villagers and increasingly organized, widely networked and politically sophisticated campaigns by transnational agrarian and environmental social movements in mounting opposition. The character, pace, direction and future of global land grabbing will be at least be partly reshaped, if not blocked, by the actions of these social forces.
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