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.
Natural Resources Crisis*JANUARY | 2010 Liz Alden Wily
land to loggers, miners, rubber or other plantationINTRODUCTION
companies, and especially now, commercial foodLet me begin with a polemic to get my main point
and bio-fuel producers. Best if you can back this upacross as to the connection between inequitable
with a contract which will hold under internationalland rights and conflict.
law, and even better to back in up with a State toLet 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 theyresistance. 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 landsone 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 likelyPARTNERS 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, notmuch 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 bypopulation 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. Orthat 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 largeState land. back seats and front baskets so they can leave the
area altogether and start taxi services in town. AndThen, 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 lasthalf 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 thatDevelopment Institute, London, 26 November 2009, to launch Uncharted
longstanding rural populations own the land theyTerritory: Land, Conflict and Humanitarian Action, ed. Sara Pantuliano,
Practical Action Publishing, 2009.and their forefathers have lived on for centuries. In
JANUARY | 2010Meanwhile many other poor economies which had
their well-crafted laws, they gently take away theselimited feudal inequities to repair, simply persisted
properties, the very assets they need to clamberin 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 preciousIn one way or another we are seeing the results on
resources that most contestation now begins toevery agrarian continent, whether it is the peri-
show itself. Whose land is it? is the cry beginning tourban 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, theMy concern is that our new century may be riven
indigenous and introduced slave populations ofwith as much civil conflict as the last and
Latin America, or simply the long forbearinginequitable land relations may be as big a factor as
land-poor of South Asia, who still till the land forin the past.
generation after generation for unreformed feudallandlords, most of whom are businessmen and
Looking back in terms of property relations, thebureaucrats and don’t even live on the farm
20th century ended with significant progress in(Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh).
more equitable distribution of farmlands aroundmuch 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 significantsustained abuse takes its toll.
progress in the redistribution of property powerbetween people and the State by the end of the
We don’t have to look far for the evidence. The 20thcentury. However, like the last, without clear and
century was one of state to state war. But it alsopre-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, atleast partly brought about by resistance to
This is why working to tackle the inequitablepersisting feudal land norms. More than 50
property relations that underwrite so much ofdifferent countries were forced to reform the way
modern, struggling agrarian society is the urgentthey 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 agendaIn the process, we must hope to see two important
today.structural changes in the agrarian world. Firstly, a
degree of reconstruction of the agrarian State itselfAnd even were reforms were undertaken, many
as it revitalises its role as serving, not taking fromadministrations, took the opportunity to capture
its citizenry. Secondly, we need to see new meaningnaturally collective assets in particular – the
of ‘development’; development as meaningforests, woodlands, wetlands, and pastures of rural
progressive agrarian enterprise which is foundedcommunities. Through this the State, if not the
upon the landholding rights of the rural poor, notfeudals, remained into the 21st century the
built upon its dispossession. In this way we canmajority landlords, while the natural and
hope to see the indigenous peoples of Peru forcustomary owners remained dispossessed.
example, or the ordinary rural communities of the3
DRC, become rightful shareholders in social change, how much more natural forest estate is beingnot 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 BonnLand 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 fromyears 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 havethe 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 thewar. 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 landbeing rethought. conflict can be seen to be handing the Taliban with
a new and powerful social agenda. A taste of thisIn 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 inhas 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 civilpeoples, 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 woodlandspopulations 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 locallaws. 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 PeaceWe 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. Anwhich 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, Aburesources as state property. Dhabi, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE
and South Korea – for rice, maize, dairy, livestockAs 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 allegedlyforemost an issue of their property relationship, reforming in many of the affected areas.
rather than among social classes). Observant3 The key source of the problem is common
forest-related agencies, for example, begin to noteacross agrarian states. It is that most rural
JANUARY | 2010intentions, but in the growing angry response by
populations in agrarian economies are stillthe 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 collective5 Mining, logging, ranching, farming, and other
properties most vulnerable; the areas which theycommercial enterprise are hardly illegitimate.
sensibly retain as community owned rather thanindividual or family land: forests and rangelands,
Poor countries and ordinary farmers needoften full of minerals and water.
investment and technical expertise. This is notdisputed. What must be disputed is the strategy:
This is not a small problem. It affects over onethe 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 ofHumanitarian 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 Republicwhich 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 theancestral 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 productionAfrica. 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 of6 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 theproclaimed land availability for inter-state
mill. Popular response to the plan to lease 1.3supported biofuel and especially food farming
million ha of customary property in Madagascar toleases.
the Daewoo Corporation saw the fall of thegovernment in March 2009. Tanzanians have
Of course this is not entirely new, as it follows onqueried the lease of their common properties to
from some decades of equally dispossessoryChinese and other investors and new developments
leasing of forest estate and pasturelands forhave been paused.
logging and mining enterprise. A quick run throughthe press over the last couple of years in Africa
makes salutary reading, not just in respect of the5
seeking food security but to make money out ofYet 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 cheapbeen to consider amending recently reformed land
to lease, bountiful and host Governments seemlaw which recognised community ownership of not
only too eager to rent out ‘their’ lands. So far thisjust farms and houses, but communal properties of
has been through less-than-transparenteach community to rid itself of this now apparent
agreements and within which local benefit is vagueobstruction. In Ethiopia, the position of ultimate
at best.State ownership over all land has allegedly
hardened to facilitate the many new foreignGRAIN, 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 thisthreatening conflict of interest. The response
The leasing of land by foreign governments and comes in the form of establishing a ‘win-win’ codetheir 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 broadlycountries 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. Thethe 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’sis 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 notand 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 andMozambique, Zambia, and Malawi. local market development in poor agrarian states.
The real question, GRAIN says, is not ‘How do weLocal 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 makingboth 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 andinvestors, 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 economiesover 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 senseland 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 thegetting 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 focusingupon the plight of refugees and displaced persons,
But history endlessly repeats itself anda new version of displacement will present itself,
justifications can always be found. As recently asinvolving growing numbers of farmers displaced
the 1970s large scale investor-based farmingfrom their own lands by the hand of their own
dispossessing customary owners caused war inunthinking governments.
Sudan as much as the hacienda culture of LatinAmerica generated revolution after revolution last
9 Of course there is remedy - and a relativelycentury. 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 andThis rests in long-overdue acknowledgement of
civilisation’. Today, those who make the deals willcustomary land rights as equivalent to private
certainly be able to fill their pockets. For ruralproperty rights in this modern day and age and to
communities themselves? Well, they will gain somebe upheld in national constitutions and land laws
jobs (although the Chinese for one will bring theiras such. This is whether or not these lands are
own labour) and some foodstuffs produced willcustomarily owned by individuals/families or
reach the local host market. But the costs will becommunities; whether or not the land is farm,
enormous, and not just the loss of use of theirforest or pasture; and whether or not local custom
traditional lands. Affected rural communities willallows 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 andlogical lessor to non-local enterprise, should they
The fragile process of securing tenure which is so wish. This can and should happen by thequietly 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 dutymake 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 requiresmodern Governments to surrender their landlord
Global agriculture will take off and affected roles over the most sought after resources in thecommunities 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 landeyes 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 theenterprise. first attractive challenge to citizen land rights.
Everywhere, a clearer and tighter set of countryAnd 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 shareholdingpartners in the commercial development of their RESOURCES
lands. This has to directly include not just theirhouses and farms, but the target of most land Refer to Pantuliano, S. (ed). 2009. Land, Conflict and
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Exclusion to Ownership? Challenges and Liz Alden Wily is an international land tenure specialist and aOpportunities in Advancing Forest Tenure Rights and Resources Initiative Fellow.
Reform. Rights and Resources Initiative,Washington.
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 marketreforms. 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 CooperationAgency, 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 theagencies that have generously supported this work, nor all the Partners of the coalition.