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Prince Charles on land grabbing

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Cape Town | 5 November 2011 | excerpt only

Excerpt from a speech by HRH The Prince of Wales on climate change and the environment at Cape Town University on 5th November 2011. For full text, click here.


Chancellor, Ministers, Distinguished guests,

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In fact it is an example, if I may say so, of what could happen if there was a willingness on the part of different constituencies to seek the solutions that lie behind the apparent wall of paralyzing dilemmas and conflicts. I have found time and again that dialogues like this can help to reveal some of the many opportunities that exist. For instance – and this is of enormous and topical importance – I wonder if this might also apply to the increasingly complex issue of foreign investment into agricultural land in emerging economies? This investment, given the need for the injection of foreign capital into agricultural productivity, should in many ways be welcome. It is absolutely essential, but it surely has to be done with particularly careful regard to how it affects both the people on the ground and the natural systems and environment? It is perhaps of note that the World Bank reported that, in 2009 alone, deals were announced that concerned some fifty-six million hectares of large-scale farmland, and that the most attractive countries for such investment were in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It seems to me absolutely essential, though, that such an investment is mindful of its impact on communities and natural systems. Indeed, I can only echo the words of Kofi Annan who recently said how very disturbing it was to read a report which found that agricultural land “that adds up to the size of France was bought in Africa in 2009 by hedge funds and other speculators.” And he added, “It is neither just, nor sustainable, for farmland to be taken away from communities in this way, nor for food to be exported when there is hunger on the doorstep.” Investments of this kind may generate significant profits for those involved, but experience cautions that this kind of investment is full of risks. It is profoundly distressing to learn of numerous rural communities being evicted from their ancestral lands in the headwaters and upper floodplains of great rivers like the Nile and Niger to make way for export-oriented estates whose giant irrigation canals may permanently destroy swamps that are crucial for both the region's biodiversity and traditional ways of life, including those downstream. Or the threat to Lake Turkana that supports the peoples and desert ecosystems of much of Northern Kenya and neighboring Southwest Ethiopia, including two World Heritage Sites, which would be devastated if its main source of water, the Omo River, were to be dammed and diverted for sugar and biofuels. Surely Africa needs to heed the lessons from tragedies elsewhere, like the desiccation of the Aral Sea that resulted from similar developments to produce much more cotton, but created far reaching consequences of unimaginable proportions.

And the Nobel Laureate, Wangari Maathai - whose tragic loss I can only mourn with all my heart - consistently pointed out how the devastating impact of such acquisitions not only threatens precious environments, but also the lives and wellbeing of thousands of ordinary people. With remarkable courage she showed, above all, how much can be achieved with local knowledge, skills and the energy of the people on the ground. She was always clear that this will not be achieved if the system depends entirely upon importing large scale or top-down technocratic solutions.

In company with many, I wonder if greater returns could come for Africa if attention were paid to backing the continent’s millions of smallholders? And yet, as I speak, many are being driven off their land and swelling the ranks of the urban dispossessed. Is this what we really want as the only answer to so-called food security? I do not see small farmers as backward relics of the past. In fact, I see them as an utterly crucial cornerstone of the future, just as they are becoming in other parts of the world. This is because smallholders typically understand the complexities of their local environments. They also have the capacity to innovate and test new approaches – a skill which is often under-appreciated. And, by virtue of the traditions they adhere to, they are often the people who are not swayed by the pressures of short termism that can dog the corporate world. Instead, they tend to think about the long-term, with a focus on the health of their soils and the coherence of their communities. They can make a very considerable difference, if they can be protected from the ravages of extreme poverty and insecure land tenure and be allowed to farm using techniques which are appropriate to their complex and variable environments.

Traditional techniques also promise a degree of insulation from the ever more costly business of using fossil-fuel dependent, artificial inputs. Sustainable, agro-ecological approaches are the ones that could produce the sorts of diverse foods that Africa needs. It is these techniques that will prove resilient in the face of the challenging economic and environmental problems we all now face. And in case you are wondering, it is not just me saying this... An impeccably well-researched International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, conducted by the U.N. in 2008 drew on evidence from a wide range of international scientists and concluded that small-scale, family-based farming systems, adopting agro-ecological approaches, were among the most productive systems in developing countries. So, with the right policies, with strong but wise investment and other support, including access to markets that value the quality of their products, these people are key. Their conclusion, in short, was that Africa depends upon the grass roots entrepreneurship of its own citizens.

Tragically, many of the land acquisitions do not encourage this kind of development with its emphasis on the viability of smallholder economics and, it appears, they may lead to serious social and environmental problems. One of the issues apparently is that, until it is too late, it is very difficult for many of the stakeholders to have a clear understanding of the size, type and implications of these investments. There is, then, an urgent need for greater transparency in land deals so that communities, and Africa as a whole, can evaluate which investments are in their best interests.

What would also help is if investors could be encouraged to take a more considered approach, and to incorporate not only an assessment of the financial returns, but also what can be achieved socially and environmentally. From what I know of this intricate subject, I would have thought that investors would find this a sound strategy. Indeed, if investors better understood these wider and deeper questions and managed the way their investments were employed properly, they might well be less exposed to financial risk…

With this in mind, the World Bank and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization have both published principles intended to set standards for good practice. I am pleased to say that some leading investors are now prioritizing projects that have a positive environmental and social outcome. There is certainly a glimmer of hope from the fact that a small group of Pension Funds has adopted a set of “Principles for Responsible Investment in Farmland.” It is also worth considering the view of the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Mr. Olivier De Schutter, who has pointed out that these positive measures will be most effective when first grounded in local land rights and good governance.

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