Food, energy, water security and agricultural development are currently hot topics on the agenda of international organizations and national governments. With a growing world population, an increasing demand for food and (renewable) energy, competition for land and water have increased substantially within the last years worldwide while fostering an unprecedented wave of large-scale land acquisitions, especially in Africa, Latin America and parts of South-East Asia. This trend is generally referred to as land grabbing and is characterized by purchases or long-term leases of farming land by either private or public investors.
It’s clear that the way land deals are negotiated in consideration of local environments and societies can represent a substantial threat for human security and sustainability. Land acquisitions may have major implications in terms of water and land access and use in the target countries while putting at risk natural resources and ecosystem services. Moreover, many studies have highlighted the nexus between weak land governance systems and high corruption with the high incidence of land agreements. Cases of politicians in the target countries offering concessions to investors by means of bribes and eviction from land of local subsistence farmers, often without adequate compensation, have been reported. Another crucial (and controversial) point is that many companies, especially from US and EU countries, have set up land arrangements in food-deficit countries, such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania, and switched land use from growing crops for food to biofuels.
So, how improving the resilience of rural populations in the targeted countries? How ensuring the adoption of principles of responsible investments in agriculture by all the investors?
Land grabbing is becoming a matter of human rights and a source of concern for civil society, NGOs, international organizations and academia.
These topics will be addressed by “Water, Energy and Food Security and the Challenge of Large-Scale Land Acquisitions”, the seminar series organized by the University IUAV of Venice and the Venice International University, from October 2014 to January 2015, aiming at discussing the issues and challenges related to this rush for land by hosting international scholars and experts. These themes are also relevant for Expò 2015 that will be held in Milan in 2015.
“It’s up to researchers understanding negative implications of large-scale acquisitions from real opportunities of development and growth” says Marta Antonelli, researcher at IUAV University in Venice. “We need reliable, open access data and more clear and accurate information on land agreements. The scientific community can provide it”.
Waiting for the aforementioned events, ClimateScience&Policy had a conversation with Dr. Antonelli to explore the main drivers and implications of land transactions around the world, with a particular focus both on the role of EU / international institutions and academia contribution to the debate.
Clisp – Could you explain to our readers what are drivers, scope, and potential impacts of the current wave of acquisitions in agricultural land?
Marta Antonelli – A number of converging global dynamics have driven a new global rush for agricultural land and water resources. This trend is generally referred to as large-scale land acquisitions or land grabbing and is characterized by purchases or long-term leases (which typically run for 50 to 99 years) of farming land by either private or public investors. This phenomenon involves governments and private investors from both industrialized countries and emerging economies securing large tracts of farming land in marginalized rural areas, especially in developing countries in Africa, Latin America and parts of South-East Asia.
The Land Matrix, a global and independent land monitoring initiative, provides the most complete and up-to-date portal on commercial pressures on land, large-scale land acquisitions and their alternatives.
Large-scale land acquisitions imply land use changes and the shift from a local, small-scale production of a typically subsistence / smallholder agriculture to a large-scale production of crops for different uses such as food, biofuels (energy crops) or multiple uses (flexible crops) as they can serve both nutritional, energy and other industrial uses.
The drivers of global land transactions are mainly four. First, the need to secure reliable food supplies in the long-term, especially for land and water-scarce countries. This is the case, for instance, of the arid and semi-arid food-deficit oil-rich economies of the Middle East. Secondly, the increasing demand for agrofuels, especially in Europe and the US, supported by subsidies and incentives. Thirdly, speculation on future increases in the price of agricultural land. Finally, land transactions accelerated since 2007-2008, especially as a consequence of the ban to exports and the increase in export levies set up by many food-exporting economies.
Clisp – Why the recent wave of investors’ interest in land has increasingly been the focus of public attention and a source of concern for NGOs, international institutions, academia and civil society?
M.A. - While farmland acquisitions have always occurred, the scale and orientation of the current wave of investments have brought this phenomenon to worldwide attention since the second half of the 2000s. The term land grabbing not only emphasises the appropriation of resources by investors but also imply a critique of their potential impacts on livelihoods and ecosystems in the targeted countries. Major reason of concern is that land acquisitions are based especially in developing countries: by combining Land Matrix and FAO data a tendency in investment concentration in low-income countries, with a high incidence of hunger and weak land institutions, has been revealed.
The purposes of land deals are generally related to the investor’s need to grow crops for food or energy purposes either for export or to secure its own requirements, because of a lack of local land and/or water resources. These transactions have major implications in terms of water and land use change in the targeted countries. The way agreements are negotiated can have substantial environmental and socio-economic implications.
That’s the reason of the recent increasing interest in land grabbing which has stimulated an intense debate at the international level between the scientific community, international organizations and civil society movements. While some experts have raised concerns about the potential adverse impacts of the increase in large-scale land acquisitions in poor and vulnerable countries, both in social and environmental terms, others have pointed to potential opportunities arising from these waves of new investments in what has been a long-neglected sector.
Concerns about the risks associated with large-scale foreign acquisitions of agricultural land are mainly related to, first, the capacity to secure domestic food supplies in the targeted countries after the agreement; secondly, the exclusion of local populations with customary access to land from the new agricultural development projects and the questioning of land and water rights. The relative short-term time horizons of land deals influence land pressures and can due in particular to an exploitation rate of natural resources in contrast with the real interests of local communities.
However, the real extent and the nature of this new phenomenon is currently difficult to assess both because of the lack of reliable data and the lack of transparency of the acquisitions processes and contractual agreements.
It’s up to researchers to distinguish between those land acquisitions that are opportunities for development from those land deals that might have negative implications for targeted countries and populations.
Clisp – Who are major investors and the world’s most targeted countries by large-scale land acquisitions?
M.A. - The majority of reported land agreements are concentrated in Africa (approximately 50%) and in Asia (about 30%) in a few countries, respectively Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, Congo, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Ethiopia, Morocco in Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Laos in South-East Asia.
The countries of investment origin are mainly industrialized countries, such as the US and European countries (Italy, UK, Portugal), emerging or BRICS countries, such as Brazil, South Africa, China, India, Malaysia and Korea, and Gulf States. Reported land agreements involve four different types of investors – namely, private companies (the great majority), state-owned companies, investment funds and public-private partnerships (about 20%).
The US, EU countries and Gulf States usually invest outside their national borders while other countries, i.e. Indonesia and Malaysia, invest in their own lands being in partnership with other countries. So, in these cases the target country is also one of the investors.
A large portion of these land agreements has been formalized by means of a written or oral agreement but production has not started in all these cases.
Clisp – How land grabbing could affect water resources availability and access?
M.A. – Many studies has recently highlighted the problem of water access and exploitation while pointing out the invisible water dimension behind every land deals. Every land grabbing hides a silent, implicit and more dangerous water grabbing. The value is not in land in fact, the real value is in water: there’s no land potentially interesting for investors without water availability and as the world is not scarce in land, it is short of land with water resources. Land agreements thus implicitly entail the use of water resources in the targeted countries. Land deals may involve the development of water infrastructures for storage and distribution, and have widespread impacts for downstream users resulting from restrictions or interruption of water flows upstream.
The water dimension implicit in land deals has become a matter of human rights: the UN General Assembly declared in fact access to clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right on 28 July 2010. Nevertheless, the water factor implicit in land deals has been ignored until very recently; the most up-to date researches on large-scale land acquisitions are trying to geographically localize land deals in order to pinpoint key or overexploited water resources.
Clisp – How international organizations could foster responsible investments in agricultural land to protect local community from exploitation and impoverishment?
M.A. – The controversies associated with large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors has raised questions on how to promote responsible investments in agriculture, how to develop land administration systems and institutions that are transparent, accountable and accessible, while preserving the more vulnerable layers of the population. After a long debate, the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems were approved by the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS).
The cornerstone of the agreement, Principle 1, states that responsible investment in agriculture and food systems contributes to food security and nutrition, especially for the most vulnerable parts of local populations, and “’supports states’ obligations regarding the progressive realization of the right to adequate food.” That entails increasing sustainable production and productivity of safe, nutritious and culturally acceptable food, reducing food loss and waste, improving income and reducing poverty, enhancing market efficiencies and fairness – in particular taking into account the interests of smallholders.
Other principles outline how responsible investments should contribute to gender equality, health, youth empowerment, respect of legitimate tenure rights to land, fisheries and forests as well as existing and potential water uses, sustainable natural resource management, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and mechanisms to assess and address their economic, social, environmental and cultural impacts.
In general international organizations are trying to stress how responsible investments in agriculture are convenient both for investors and targeted countries. Responsible investments are in fact crucial to minimize risks related to the exploitation of natural resources and foster local populations involvement while avoiding conflicts that may prevent or delay land deals realization.
Clisp – What the EU is doing to foster the adoption of responsible guidelines on land acquisitions? Are EU energy and food policies sustainable?
M.A. – The European Union, and Italy in particular, plays a mayor role as an investor in foreign land, especially for food and biofuel productions. The EU has previously encouraged Member States to adopt the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (FAO 2012) and the aforementioned final document of the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems.
The Principles address all types of investment in agriculture and food systems and provide a framework that all stakeholders can use when developing national policies, programmes and regulatory frameworks, corporate social responsibility policies and programs, and individual agreements or contracts.
Moreover, the EU calls for consultation of civil society and participation of parliaments and elected representatives of local and regional authorities to ensure transparency of contract negotiations while encouraging to protect land use rights of small local farmers, especially in countries where land acquisitions has happened at an alarming extent over the last years, such as in Africa (EU policy framework, 2011).
Nevertheless, a EU framework for large-scale land acquisitions doesn’t exist and is still under debate. Specific EU directives and legally binding measures, as well as a EU recognized definition of sustainable or responsible land investments are still missing to ensure the adoption of responsible guidelines on land acquisitions by all member states.
Clisp – In the end, what could be the role and contribution of the science community on this subject?
M.A. – First, the research community has an obligation to communicate to public opinion and politics to give clear and accurate information. The scientific community has the responsibility in particular to bring in the discussion some issues otherwise neglected by countries and investors, such as implications and potential impacts of land use and land-use change, the implicit water dimension of land deals or threats to human rights, that is the need for responsible and sustainable investments to ensure food and water security.
The academia should support business in understanding corporate social responsibility related to rural land acquisitions while making operational the framework designed and developed by international organizations. Researchers should make sustainability appealing to investors while fostering and accelerating a process of decoupling economic activity from consumption and environmental impacts.
Last but not least, the science community must struggle for transparency of the acquisitions processes and contractual agreements in order to make available reliable data to assess the real extent and the nature of the phenomenon: with little empirical data, it is difficult to understand how to minimize the risks associated with these investments in farming land while capitalising on any opportunity potentially arising for the targeted countries. Their ultimate goal must be to facilitate the development of an open community of citizens, researchers, policy-makers and experts to promote transparency and accountability in decisions over land and investment.
(Interview by Laura Caciagli)
- The Land Matrix database
- The research project “The role of Europe in land deals: understanding the food-energy-water security nexus” jointly developed by Enel Foundation, Fondazione Politecnico di Milano, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, the Department of Design and Planning in Complex Environment, University IUAV of Venice and Venice International University
- The working paper “The rush for agricultural land and water resources: the role of the European Union” (pdf file – 2, 86 Mb)
- The seminar series – October 2014 – January 2015: “Water, energy and food security towards Expo 2015. The challenge of large-scale land acquisitions”
- The official Expo Milano 2015 website
- The book “L’acqua che mangiamo – Cos’è l’acqua virtuale e come la consumiamo”, edited by Marta Antonelli and Francesca Greco, published by Edizioni Ambiente
- Marta Antonelli’s personal page on the IUV website
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] (2014), Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems
- The Thomson Reuters Foundation and FAO news portal on global food security
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2014), AQUASTAT database
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] (2013), FAO World Hunger Map, FAOSTAT database. Available online at:
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] (2013), Biofuels and the sustainability challenge. A global assessment of sustainability issues, trends and policies for biofuels and related feedstocks, Rome, Italy
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] (2012), Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the context of National Food Security, Rome
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] (2012), Trends and impacts of foreign direct Investments in Developing Country Agriculture. Evidence from Case Studies, Rome, Italy
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] (2011), The State of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture. Managing systems at risk, Summary Report, Rome, Italy.