Fodder for war: Getting to the crux of the natural resources crisis

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Rights and Resources Initiative | January 2010

Fodder for war: Getting to the crux of the natural resources crisis

Liz Alden Wily

As the world's governments and international enterprise become increasingly interested in land acquisition for food production, the importance of legal customary tenure recognition becomes more apparent. This presentation was given to a Public Meeting at the Overseas Development Institute, London, 26 November 2009, to launch Uncharted Territory: Land, Conflict and Humanitarian Action, ed. Sara Pantuliano, Practical Action Publishing, 2009.

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Fodder for War: Getting to the Crux of the

Natural Resources Crisis*

JANUARY | 2010                                                                                               Liz Alden Wily

land to loggers, miners, rubber or other plantation


companies, and especially now, commercial food

Let me begin with a polemic to get my main point

and bio-fuel producers. Best if you can back this up

across as to the connection between inequitable

with a contract which will hold under international

land rights and conflict.

law, and even better to back in up with a State to

Let me put it this way: what is the best way to                         State agreement.

start a civil conflict today?

But don’t forget to pay the customary land owners

Well, one way is territorial invasion and respondent                    a little something for the crops or buildings they

resistance. This has a pretty solid history – and is                    lose; this will help keep resentment down.

still seen in some of the older conflicts grinding on                   Obviously you don’t have to do this for the forests,

today (the Basque and Kurdish conflicts, Israel/                        pastures or other lands which are not farmed. For

Palestine) but we are seeing this less and less - with                  there really is no visible evidence that these lands

one or two painful recent exceptions (Chechnya,                         are ‘theirs’. Look, the trees are still standing. [If you

Ossetia, Iraq).                                                         need more excuses to concur with the likely

PARTNERS                                                                         national law of that country, then you have it in

There is a simpler way, and one which can produce                       two facts: they hold the unfarmed communally, not

much more chronic conflict: first, operate in an                        as single owners. In addition, it seems that when it

agrarian state. This is a country where most of the                     comes to unfarmed land, the community by

population depends upon land, not jobs, for                             custom does allow this to be sold. And we all know

survival. Then curtail their rights to those                            that ‘property’ is only ‘property’ when it is fungible,

resources; land, forests, pastures, rangelands and                      able to sold. Well, that’s what western law says

wetlands. The easiest way to do this is actually to                     anyway, and it is always right].

do nothing, just sustain often old colonial policies

which deny that these rights exist; that is to say,                     Now offer a few jobs in your new enterprise. Or

that these rural communities are in law no more                         better still, like the Chinese in Cameroon today,

than permissive occupants and users of national or                      hand out a few ‘bodo bodo’ bicycles with large

State land.                                                             back seats and front baskets so they can leave the

area altogether and start taxi services in town. And

Then, add to this the ‘needs’ of the State and its                      then ignore the matter and let it fester...

associated elites with their deep pockets. Lease this                   Does this sound unlikely? Well, no. Over the last

half century nearly one hundred of the world’s

countries, many of them bitterly poor, have tended

* This presentation was given to a Public Meeting at the Overseas

to this position. In so doing they deny that

Development Institute, London, 26 November 2009, to launch Uncharted

longstanding rural populations own the land they

Territory: Land, Conflict and Humanitarian Action, ed. Sara Pantuliano,

Practical Action Publishing, 2009.

and their forefathers have lived on for centuries. In

JANUARY | 2010

Meanwhile many other poor economies which had

their well-crafted laws, they gently take away these

limited feudal inequities to repair, simply persisted

properties, the very assets they need to clamber

in the convenient notion that such lands don’t

out of poverty.

belong to people but to government, in the interest

of public purpose. It is around these precious

In one way or another we are seeing the results on

resources that most contestation now begins to

every agrarian continent, whether it is the peri-

show itself. Whose land is it? is the cry beginning to

urban villages of China, the forest dwelling

be heard from state to state.

populations of the Congo Basin, the customary

landholding majority in most African states, the

My concern is that our new century may be riven

indigenous and introduced slave populations of

with as much civil conflict as the last and

Latin America, or simply the long forbearing

inequitable land relations may be as big a factor as

land-poor of South Asia, who still till the land for

in the past.

generation after generation for unreformed feudal

landlords, most of whom are businessmen and

Looking back in terms of property relations, the

bureaucrats and don’t even live on the farm

20th century ended with significant progress in

(Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh).

more equitable distribution of farmlands around

much of the agrarian world.

The point I am trying to make is straightforward:

that equitable land relations matter and that

Looking forward, we can expect significant

sustained abuse takes its toll.

progress in the redistribution of property power

between people and the State by the end of the

We don’t have to look far for the evidence. The 20th

century. However, like the last, without clear and

century was one of state to state war. But it also

pre-emptive will to reform, this may not occur

was a century of rebellion, revolution, and civil war,

without rebellion, conflict, and even civil war.

and radical transformation of political systems, at

least partly brought about by resistance to

This is why working to tackle the inequitable

persisting feudal land norms. More than 50

property relations that underwrite so much of

different countries were forced to reform the way

modern, struggling agrarian society is the urgent

they treat rural land ownership. In practice, well

project of the ‘now’.

under half made significant progress and challenge

to feudal land relations remains on the agenda

In the process, we must hope to see two important


structural changes in the agrarian world. Firstly, a

degree of reconstruction of the agrarian State itself

And even were reforms were undertaken, many

as it revitalises its role as serving, not taking from

administrations, took the opportunity to capture

its citizenry. Secondly, we need to see new meaning

naturally collective assets in particular – the

of ‘development’; development as meaning

forests, woodlands, wetlands, and pastures of rural

progressive agrarian enterprise which is founded

communities. Through this the State, if not the

upon the landholding rights of the rural poor, not

feudals, remained into the 21st century the

built upon its dispossession. In this way we can

majority landlords, while the natural and

hope to see the indigenous peoples of Peru for

customary owners remained dispossessed.

example, or the ordinary rural communities of the


DRC, become rightful shareholders in social change,   how much more natural forest estate is being

not its casualties.                                   acknowledged as community property.

MAIN POINTS                                           2       However progress is too dangerously slow

- probably too slow to yet prevent rising

Let me summarise ten main background points.

numbers of civil conflicts – and the costs are

1        Progress is being made in connecting                          mounting.

inequitable land relations and conflicts.

In Afghanistan for example, failure since the Bonn

Land and property issues are now better                     Agreement to swiftly resolve bitter inter-tribal

placed on the agenda than they were even five            conflict as to pasture access that stems from

years past. Humanitarian and reconstruction           disputed State ownership, is opening a new front in

agents in conflict states are taking a deeper look at the ongoing war against insurgents. Taliban have

the issues and moving beyond a narrow focus upon      begun to actively support and arm fellow Pashtun

restitution of property wrongfully taken during the   tribesmen in this land conflict. This now raises the

war. The knee-jerk reaction of donors to solve land   prospect of reactive threat of Iranian support for

problems with house and farm registration, is often   the non-Pashtun Shia tribes. Meanwhile, the land

being rethought.                                      conflict can be seen to be handing the Taliban with

a new and powerful social agenda. A taste of this

In the land tenure reform sector as a whole, and      was seen in Pakistan in early 2009 as Taliban

within and outside conflicted states, great progress  grasped the utility of engaging landless tillers in

has been made since 1995 in revisiting the position   their war against entrenched feudal notables.

of most agrarian populations as tenants of State.

In Sudan a more typical source of future conflict

In Latin America this has focused on indigenous       unfolds. A main cause in the long North-South civil

peoples, with a rising number of land grants. In      war from 1984 was State leasing of some millions of

Africa this more widely embraces entire rural         hectares of customary rangelands and woodlands

populations through changing the legal status of      to entrepreneurs, including foreigners, on the basis

unregistered and customary ownership in national      that these belonged to Government, not local

laws. In Asia and Central Asia both in different ways communities. Despite pledging to reassess the

cautiously and much more slowly begin to apply.       status of customary property interests in the Peace

We see this is the quietly increasing grip of         Agreement of January 2005, President Omar al

customary tenure in Indonesian law, in the way in     Bashir has re-launched mass leasing of lands. An

which Nepal, Afghanistan and Liberia ponder the       estimated five million ha are already in the hands

usefulness of retaining all pasture and forest        of State or state-supported enterprise of Egypt, Abu

resources as state property.                          Dhabi, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE

and South Korea – for rice, maize, dairy, livestock

As a whole, the balance of State-people landholding   production. All this is to feed their own food-short

is shifting (for the issue at this point is first and populations. Needless to say, militias are allegedly

foremost an issue of their property relationship,     reforming in many of the affected areas.

rather than among social classes). Observant

3       The key source of the problem is common

forest-related agencies, for example, begin to note

across agrarian states. It is that most rural

JANUARY | 2010

intentions, but in the growing angry response by

populations in agrarian economies are still

the rural poor [see Robin Palmer’s excellent

little better than squatters on their own land,

collation of clippings and papers].

in the eyes of their country laws.

Not surprisingly, this makes their collective

5        Mining, logging, ranching, farming, and other

properties most vulnerable; the areas which they

commercial enterprise are hardly illegitimate.

sensibly retain as community owned rather than

individual or family land: forests and rangelands,

Poor countries and ordinary farmers need

often full of minerals and water.

investment and technical expertise. This is not

disputed. What must be disputed is the strategy:

This is not a small problem. It affects over one

the failure to root these developments on a

billion of the world’s rural poor in Asia, Central Asia,

platform of local tenure recognition. To do so

Latin America, and Africa.

would structure enterprise with, rather than

4        Nor is it coincidental that these are the areas       against, rural populations. It is this failure which

– and especially in Africa – where most civil         has the most potential to generate new conflict in

wars and lesser conflicts are rife.                these countries.

In January 2008 when I was preparing the chapter in      Consider the facts: who, for example, are the

Uncharted Territory: Land, Conflict and                  traditional and continuing customary owners of

Humanitarian Action, I identified 70 significant         the ten million ha of valuable rural real estate

current conflicts in 43 states, the most recent of       which the Government of the Democratic Republic

which was in Kenya where post-election violence          of Congo is reported to have offered to a South

segued quickly into inter-tribal battles over            African Farmers Union for development? Who is the

ancestral lands. Only 15 of the 70 conflicts were not    natural owner of the 10,000 ha which the Cameroon

in agrarian economies and nearly half (48%) were in      Government has leased to China for rice production

Africa. On further examination, there is a close         and where, perhaps to the surprise of the Chinese

correlation of conflict with (i) the proportion of       company, they have begun to find is not vacant,

land area under state rather than citizen                unoccupied or unowned land after all?

ownership; (ii) the existence in rural areas of

6        Conflict in and around this grievance can

majority unrecognised customary ownership; (iii)

increase – and the signs are it will increase.

levels of rural poverty and institutional weakness

– and increasingly, (iv) a correlation with

The current ‘global land grab’ is merely grist to the

proclaimed land availability for inter-state

mill. Popular response to the plan to lease 1.3

supported biofuel and especially food farming

million ha of customary property in Madagascar to


the Daewoo Corporation saw the fall of the

government in March 2009. Tanzanians have

Of course this is not entirely new, as it follows on

queried the lease of their common properties to

from some decades of equally dispossessory

Chinese and other investors and new developments

leasing of forest estate and pasturelands for

have been paused.

logging and mining enterprise. A quick run through

the press over the last couple of years in Africa

makes salutary reading, not just in respect of the


seeking food security but to make money out of

Yet it would be wrong to say that just solutions will

food insecurity, rising food shortages and prices,

be easily reached. Rumour has it that the response

that is, from both the harvests and the land itself.

of the Tanzanian Government for example, has

They seek land in mainly Africa because it is cheap

been to consider amending recently reformed land

to lease, bountiful and host Governments seem

law which recognised community ownership of not

only too eager to rent out ‘their’ lands. So far this

just farms and houses, but communal properties of

has been through less-than-transparent

each community to rid itself of this now apparent

agreements and within which local benefit is vague

obstruction. In Ethiopia, the position of ultimate

at best.

State ownership over all land has allegedly

hardened to facilitate the many new foreign

GRAIN, among others (e.g. the UN Special

business land occupations.

Rapporteur on the Right to Food), also throws cold

7        There are elements in the process which are          water on the time-old response of the industrial-

provocative to not just human rights but                backed international community (notably FAO and

common sense.                                     The World Bank, Japan and the G-8) to this

threatening conflict of interest. The response

The leasing of land by foreign governments and          comes in the form of establishing a ‘win-win’ code

their agencies to feed their own populations most       of conduct for foreign land and food security

afflicts Africa. This is a continent where few          investments. The international press has broadly

countries produce enough to feed themselves and         welcomed this. A sigh of relief around international

where a third of the population is hungry. Among        agencies and companies can be heard. The

the 40 million ha known to have been leased since       argument is ‘agricultural investment is needed and

late 2007 or under negotiation, half is in Africa. This this will be good for African economies, so let’s

is in countries where poor rural majorities live and    make it work’. GRAIN raises the point that even the

depend upon not just farming but forest/woodland        food security is unsound, that the answer lies not

and rangeland use: Ethiopia, DRC, CAR, Sudan,           in the north taking and farming the lands of the

Cameroon, Kenya, Angola, Madagascar,                    south, but building upon existing family farm and

Mozambique, Zambia, and Malawi.                         local market development in poor agrarian states.

The real question, GRAIN says, is not ‘How do we

Local livelihood is almost always organized on a        make these investments work? But ‘What farming

community or village basis, each community having       and food systems will feed people without making

both its family farming areas and shared non-           them sick, keep farmers on the farm instead of the

farmed resources. These are the target for              city slums, and allow communities to prosper and

investors, and easily accessible because host           thrive?’

governments either claim these lands are unowned,

or hold them in trust for local communities, a trust    To this might be added the now-doubted returns of

which it has proven all too easy to abuse.              large-scale estate farming in labour-rich economies

over the last sixty or so years. So too must a future

GRAIN reports that more foreign state or agency         be challenged on moral and common sense

land for food applications and offers are in the        grounds where African nations become the

pipeline. It remarks the trend of private investors     farmyard of the industrialised world and the

getting in on the act: hedge funds, private equity      Middle East, not quite the client future which

groups, and investment banks. This sector is not        Africans envisioned for themselves.

JANUARY | 2010

humanitarian community, long used to focusing

upon the plight of refugees and displaced persons,

But history endlessly repeats itself and

a new version of displacement will present itself,

justifications can always be found. As recently as

involving growing numbers of farmers displaced

the 1970s large scale investor-based farming

from their own lands by the hand of their own

dispossessing customary owners caused war in

unthinking governments.

Sudan as much as the hacienda culture of Latin

America generated revolution after revolution last

9        Of course there is remedy - and a relatively

century. In the 1880s Europeans claimed that their

simple one at that – in principle.

carve-up of Africa was for the good of native

populations, for they would ‘gain Christianity and

This rests in long-overdue acknowledgement of

civilisation’. Today, those who make the deals will

customary land rights as equivalent to private

certainly be able to fill their pockets. For rural

property rights in this modern day and age and to

communities themselves? Well, they will gain some

be upheld in national constitutions and land laws

jobs (although the Chinese for one will bring their

as such. This is whether or not these lands are

own labour) and some foodstuffs produced will

customarily owned by individuals/families or

reach the local host market. But the costs will be

communities; whether or not the land is farm,

enormous, and not just the loss of use of their

forest or pasture; and whether or not local custom

traditional lands. Affected rural communities will

allows the latter classes to be sold outright or not.

lose their possession of this latent capital.

8        Moreover, the prospect of ever regaining             As legally recognised land owners, communities,

secure tenure will be diminished.              not the state, would then become the rightful and

logical lessor to non-local enterprise, should they

The fragile process of securing tenure which is      so wish. This can and should happen by the

quietly advancing in these affected continents will  assisting and vigilant hand of the State itself,

slow down or even be abandoned, as Governments       government agencies fulfilling their rightful duty

make their choice in favour of global agriculture in to assist their citizens –not themselves - to develop

the interests of proclaimed greater economic good,   their assets.

and most likely, through retaining and deepening

malformed norms and arrangements.                    Of course this is less easy in practice. It requires

modern Governments to surrender their landlord

Global agriculture will take off and affected        roles over the most sought after resources in the

communities will find a curious shift in their       world. Already even those who have made

property relations: where before they were in the    significant progress in securing customary land

eyes of the law tenants of State, now they will be   rights (e.g. Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique in

more accurately tenants of corporate international   Africa) are found to be in danger of falling at the

enterprise.                                          first attractive challenge to citizen land rights.

Everywhere, a clearer and tighter set of country

And not all can or will remain on these lands as     legal norms need promotion and support. This

employment, such as it is, contracts with the        means rooting customary land rights in such a

‘economic necessity of efficiency’. For the          manner that it is these owners, not governments or

other agents, who become the direct shareholding

partners in the commercial development of their          RESOURCES

lands. This has to directly include not just their

houses and farms, but the target of most land            Refer to Pantuliano, S. (ed). 2009. Land, Conflict and

grabbing past and present whether it has been                   Humanitarian Action. Practical Action

local or international - the yet uncultivated                   Publishing, UK.

rangelands, woodlands and forests which belong           And:

today and customarily to these rural communities.        Agencies. 2009. South Koreans acquire huge

farmland in Tanzania. Daily Nation, Kenya,

To achieve such changes requires a mindset                      September 25, 2009.

change, and in a time when vested interest,              Alden Wily, L. 2008. Whose Land is It? Commons and

corruption, and greed militate against change, and              Conflict States Why the Ownership of the

where the meaning of ‘good government’ has lost                 Commons Matters in Making and Keeping

its way. This suggests a needed reconstruction of               Peace. Rights and Resources Initiative,

the State. Perhaps as of old, this may take civil               Washington.

-----.    Forthcoming. Africa’s big question. Can the

unrest if not war to be forced upon benighted

continent find solutions to its colonial land

agrarian populations. Whichever way we look at it,

ownership legacy? In Special Newsletter,

the sorry truth is that conflict over natural

Tropical Forest Update, ITTO.

resources and how they are and should be owned,

-----.    Forthcoming. Resolving Tenure Conflicts to

is probably on the agenda. And sadly, the continent

Limit War. A Case from Afghanistan in

which can least afford it, Africa, is the most

Strengthening Post-Conflict Peacebuilding


through Natural Resource Management, Vol. 4

10     Finally, why should the humanitarian                              (ed. H. Young), Environmental Law Institute and

community be concerned over these issues?                  UNEP.

Cotula, L., S. Vermeulen, R. Leonard, and J. Keeley.

The answer to this is simple. It is they, not those             2009. Land grab or development opportunity?

who make the policies and deals, who have to clean              Agricultural Investment and international land

up in civil conflicts, find the shelter and food for the        deals in Africa. FAO, IIED and IFAD.

displaced and dispossessed. Whether it is                Fuys, A., E. Mwangi and S. Dohrn, 2008. Securing

burdensome or not, humanitarian actors need to                  Common Property Regimes in a Globalizing

become informed and participate in every possible               World.Synthesis of 41 Case Studies on Common

way to prevent, not just treat, the emerging land               Property Rgimes from Asia, Africa, Europe and

war.                                                            Latin America. CAPRI & International Land

Coalition, Rome.

GRAIN. 2008. Seized! The 2008 land grab for food and

financial security, Briefing and Annex. GRAIN,


-----. 2009. Stop the global land grab! GRAIN

statement at the joint GRAIN-La Via Campesina

media briefing.

Laishley, R. 2009. Foreign acquisitions: some

opportunities, but many see threats. United

Nations Africa Renewal, 11 November 2009, New       Taylor, M. and T. Bending, 2009. Increasing commercial

York.                                                   pressure on land: Building a coordinated response.

Mande, M. 2009. Public fury halts biofuel onslaught            International Land Coalition, Rome.

on farmers. The East African, October 5-11 2009.    The Economist. 2009. Outsourcing’s third wave. Buying

Palmer, R. 2009a Select Bibliography of Reports on             farmland abroad. May 23rd-29th 2009, London.

Biofuels, Land Rights in Africa & Global Land       UN-HABITAT, 2009. Quick Guide to Post-Conflict Land Issues:

Grabbing, Mokoro Ltd, Oxford.                           Discussion Draft June 2009.

-----. 2009b. Select Bibliography of Press Cuttings on     Vallely, P. 2009. Wish You Weren’t Here: The Devastating

Biofuels, Land Rights in Africa & Global Land           Effects of the New Colonialist. The Independent, August

Grabbing, Mokoro Ltd, Oxford.                           10, 2009.

Perlez, J. and P. S. Shah, 2009a. Taliban Exploit Class    Von Braun, J. and R. Meinzen-Dick, 2009. ‘Land Grabbing’ by

Rifts in Pakistan. The New York Times, April 17         Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and

2009.                                                   Opportunities. IFPRI Policy Brief 13 - April 2009. IFPRI.

-----. 2009b. With Stubborn Unrest in Swat,                Wheeler, S. 2009. South Sudan looking into US land deal.

Landowners Remain in Exile. The New York                Reuters, January 27 2009.

Times, July 28, 2009.                               Wikipedia. Past and Current Wars.

Rice, A. 2009. Is There Such a Thing as Agro-              Von Braun, J. and R. Meinzen-Dick, 2009. ‘Land Grabbing’ by

Imperialism? The New York Times, November 22,           Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and

2009.                                                   Opportunities. IFPRI Policy Brief 13 - April 2009. IFPRI.

Rights and Resources, 2008. Seeing People Through          Wheeler, S. 2009. South Sudan looking into US land deal.

the Trees Scaling Up Efforts to Advance Rights          Reuters, January 27 2009.

and Address Poverty, Conflict and Climate           Wikipedia. Past and Current Wars.

Change. Washington.

RSBP, 2009. New Scramble for Africa hits Kenyan

wildlife oasis. Press Release, 24 June 2009.

Sunderlin, W., J. Hatcher and M. Liddle, 2008. From        ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Exclusion to Ownership? Challenges and              Liz Alden Wily is an international land tenure specialist and a

Opportunities in Advancing Forest Tenure            Rights and Resources Initiative Fellow.

Reform. Rights and Resources Initiative,


Wily, Liz Alden. (Contributing Author). Fodder for War: Getting to the Crux of the National Resources Crisis.

Washington: Rights and Resources Initiative, 2010.

The Rights and Resources Initiative is a global coalition to advance forest tenure, policy, and market

reforms. RRI is composed of international, regional, and community organizations engaged in conservation,

research, and development. For more information, visit www.rightsandresources.org.

This publication was made possible with the support of the Ford Foundation, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of

Finland, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Swedish International Development Cooperation

Agency, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and UK Department for International

Development. The views presented here are those of the authors and are not necessarily shared by the

agencies that have generously supported this work, nor all the Partners of the coalition.
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