The Ecologist | 13 November 2012
by Phil Bloomer
Oxfam’s Phil Bloomer reports on the shocking scandal of (mostly) secretive land-grabbing, usually from those least able to defend their rights.
Land grabbing has fast become a major threat to poor communities in Africa, Asia and South America. Poverty-stricken women and men are being driven from their homes and the land they rely on to grow food to eat and make a living, usually without compensation. In many cases this is often in violation of national laws and international standards for investment. Many end up destitute, living under plastic at the sides of roads, or migrating to urban slums to eke out a living. The shift from thriving rural communities to landless labourers brings untold misery and suffering to these displaced families.
This scandal has worsened in the last decade. The most extensive recent research points to a staggering 203 million hectares changing hands in around 2,000 mainly secretive land deals.
The drivers of this new land rush are numerous but come down to three major factors: foreign governments increasingly anxious to secure their food supplies, triggered by the two food-price spikes of 2008 and 2011; speculators who see African land as a one-way bet – prices can only go up in the next decade as demand for food, and food-price volatility increase; and companies who see guaranteed market opportunities in Europe through the ‘biofuels mandate’ that promises a major market but diverts grain from food into fuel tanks. In fact, the latest research points to biofuels being a major driver for around two-thirds of large land deals between 2000 and 2010. What links them all is rising competition over finite natural resources.
There is now a steady dawning amongst politicians, investors, business leaders and the public that we are at, or have now passed, a number of critical planetary boundaries – land use, freshwater use and climate change being amongst the most critical. We either now pursue a ‘winner takes all’ approach as exemplified by land grabs, or we seek a future of shared prosperity with greater equality and better care of our natural resources.
More is also now being revealed about the disappointing results of large-scale land investment, with some African governments actively encouraging secretive land acquisition in the hope that commercial farming will bring food security, energy security, jobs and tax revenues. Under the right conditions, of course, large-scale agriculture might be of some benefit to poor countries. In combination with smallholders, large-scale farms can enhance productivity.
Unfortunately, the World Bank and civil society studies point to very few benefits so far from the great majority of recent land deals. Leases are often at low or zero rent. Extensive tax holidays are common. The jobs created are scarce and low-paid. And the food security safeguards that should and would ensure that the lease-holders sell the food grown in national markets when world food prices spike are usually non-existent.
African governments have found themselves hostage to long-term leases where the human costs outweigh any economic benefits. The fact that too many of these deals are not open to public scrutiny also provides an opportunity for corruption. For both smallholder farmers and pastoralists these vanishing national benefits are minor compared to the experience of dispossession of their lands, their water and their commons: grazing and hunting grounds.
For many poor and vulnerable people, their land title is ‘customary’: despite living on the same plots for generations, they still have no formal documents. This has led the World Bank and governments to speak of vast areas of Africa as being ‘unoccupied’. The very presence of people living in poverty – let alone their indigenous rights – goes unrecognised. Then tragedy results with people being evicted without compensation. Women are particularly vulnerable thanks to discrimination, cash poverty and the ever-present threat of violence.
One piece of good news is that the new ‘scramble for land’, with all its colonial connotations, is now gaining increasing media attention, and this in turn is raising the reputational and political risks for unscrupulous governments, speculators and businesses.
Oxfam, Action Aid, the Oakland Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development, together with a host of other extraordinarily brave national organisations, are exposing cases in order to call for stronger national laws and international standards for investors. And in May 2012, the Africa Progress Report of Kofi Annan and other African leaders highlighted the growing threat to African food security and prosperity from unfettered land grabs.
A number of African governments are now looking for ways to address this problem, and the African Union last year signed up to the Nairobi Action Plan to tackle some of the problems associated with large land deals in Africa. Equally, in May this year, governments around the world signed up to the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, which strengthens the obligation to consult communities in relation to land deals and ensure their participation prior to decisions being taken. This was ground-breaking because free, prior and informed consent has the potential to empower communities to demand that any investment will work for their interests, as well as for those of the investors.
These improved measures have been welcomed by responsible international investors who are now working with international institutions to develop principles that distinguish good and bad land investment, and to provide incentives for and accountability from fund managers. The UN Principles for Responsible Investment, and the Performance Standards of the World Bank’s business investment arm (the IFC) are examples of standards that – if followed by investors – will help avoid the damage to people living in poverty, and seek to promote shared prosperity and sustainability (although too often implementation of these standards falls short of the ideal).
Oxfam’s own reflection on our recent land work is that, despite recent efforts, the global and national governance of land, especially in poor countries, remains simply too weak, diffuse and without teeth. And given the scale and speed of large land deals, there is an urgent need for action by governments, responsible business and civil society to protect poor and vulnerable people from the resulting eviction and destitution.
It is the 500 million smallholder farmers who feed the great majority of the poorest 2 billion people on our planet. They deserve better, and have the potential to be a vibrant, thriving sector delivering food security to over a third of the world’s population.
To achieve this they need investment in their productivity, not the theft of their lands.
Phil Bloomer is the Director of Campaigns and Policy at Oxfam GB.