The land-grab trap: Is there a will to govern global land grabbing?

Pause in the negotiations in the Red Room of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Pause in the negotiations in the Red Room of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) - See more at:
Focaal Blog | 19 September 2014

by Philip McMichael & Birgit Müller

How to govern the “global land rush”1 was at issue in the final negotiations on the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems at the Committee for World Food Security (CFS) in Rome, held 4–8 August 2014. For a week, a policy drama unfolded. On stage were private sector organizations, clearly supported by the United States, Canada, and Russia, that wanted to prevent any regulation of investments. Opposing them were Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)—supported by Brazil, Ecuador, and, to some extent, Indonesia and Sudan—that wanted commitments from the governments to assume their obligations to govern investments in such a way as to realize the right to food as a national priority.

Food producers and land and water users have experienced a long-simmering crisis. Over several decades, governments—with International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank pressure—and corporate markets have undermined or destabilized their production systems; investors and states have seized land, wetlands, and forests2; and farm, plantation, and food workers have suffered declining wages and exploitative working conditions. Altogether, these deteriorating conditions triggered, over the past quarter century, a vast range of struggle, mobilization, and development of alternatives in all regions. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the crisis came to a head, as financial speculation and monopoly pricing of agro-inputs, combined with rising energy costs of industrial foods and use of cropland for agro-fuel production, triggered a spike in food prices worldwide.

In June 2008, the Terra Preta Forum, organized by civil society alongside the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) World Summit on Food Security, noted:

The serious and urgent food and climate crises are being used by political and economic elites as opportunities to entrench corporate control of world agriculture and the ecological commons.

Crisis conditions provided cover for political and economic elites to impose their will. Transnational and domestic corporate investors, governments, and local elites took control over large quantities of land (and its minerals and water) to produce food, feed, biofuel, and other industrial commodities for the international or domestic markets. The World Bank entered into an alliance with the G8 countries and corporate philanthropists like the Gates Foundation, feeding the world the idea that private agricultural investment was the solution to crisis. Conversely, the obvious crisis in multilateral governance also made the reform of the CFS possible. This restructuring in 2009 opened up a space for the food-insecure populations themselves, among them small producers from all over the world. For the first time in United Nations history, civil society organizations and private sector organizations were sitting with representatives of governments around the table to discuss and make proposals about food policy issues.

In parallel and behind closed doors, the World Bank—along with the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)—crafted the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI).3 Following the rationale of self-regulation of the private sector, these principles do not include any reference to binding legal instruments—for example, national laws and regulations, or international human rights law. Rather, PRAI build on corporate social responsibility frameworks such as the Equator Principles, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the Santiago Principles, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and numerous commodity- or theme-specific schemes. The Bank’s principles were never submitted for approval to the governing bodies of the four institutions that advanced them.

At the plenary session of the CFS in October 2010, CSOs led the charge to reject the Bank’s PRAI and support a CFS-based process for developing responsible agricultural investment principles (CFS-RAI), which would recognize the overwhelming role of small-scale producers in feeding the majority world and working the land and the right to food.

Normative framework
However, institutional memory is wanting. In May 2014, when the first draft of the CFS-RAI was negotiated after lengthy preparations and consultations all over the world and the Internet, urgencies from urban hunger riots and starving rural populations seemed already somewhat forgotten, and the draft was largely devoid of detail and concrete commitments. The major tension in the CFS deliberations was between a rights-based approach defended by CSOs that tried to imbue the notion of investment with a moral and normative dimension, and a capital-based approach asserted by the private sector that emphasized that rights-based language was the wrong idiom to talk about investments. Quoting Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, private sector spokespersons narrowly defined “investment” as “investing money for profit, the action or processes of capital formation.” Member states of the CFS assumed positions that covered the entire range between these two approaches, or rights versus profits.

Whenever CSOs suggested “negative” verbs such as “prevent,” they were immediately reminded to use “positive” language. However, private sector representatives were also reluctant to include constraining verbs such as “ensure” in the principles that would firmly commit investments to a positive impact. They preferred formulations such as “promote,” “contribute,” or “encourage.” It became apparent that many governments, most conspicuously the United States, Canada, and Russia, countered any attempt to introduce words like “regulate” or even “govern.”Proposals to add concrete policy suggestions such as public procurement, public food stocks, and distribution were immediately countered by remarks made by Canada and the United States to “keep it simple, keep it short.”

The distinctiveness of small-scale production
In the negotiation, everybody from the private sector and the most liberal of governments to civil society agreed that investments by “smallholders” were important.4 However, determining who actually qualified as a smallholder was difficult. The Private Sector Mechanism (PSM) and government allies routinely lumped smallholders with “large-holders” as if they practiced the same kind of agriculture, and in the name of “balance.” This artificial balancing of different “stakeholders” pervaded the CFS dialogue. PSM and allies claimed to be simultaneously “pro-poor” and “pro-growth,” and yet pro-growth policies have, by the World Bank’s own admission,5 regularly discriminated against the poor in the name of “trickle-down” capital growth, prioritizing large investors whose market horizons do not include majority needs. This claim stems from an unproblematic assumption that any increase in investment is positive. But the pursuit of “capital formation” often implies the progressive transformation of production models to make farmers dependent on purchased inputs: on seeds they are not allowed to reseed6, as well as pesticides and herbicides. Outside of the sanitized arena of the FAO’s Red Room, large-scale investments often involve smallholders in out-grower schemes for agricultural investors offering them grower’s contracts for which they carry the entire responsibility if the harvest fails, incurring debts from buying expensive inputs when they cannot reimburse. Accordingly, investment principles apply neither equally nor similarly across this divide. As a spokesperson of La Via Campesina phrased it, “We do not belong to the private sector.” CSOs managed to get a clear distinction between farmers who are considered smallholders and farmers who are considered private business inscribed in paragraphs 47 to 50, but the principles fail to clearly differentiate between regulating corporate investment in land and other resources as value capture, and supporting small-scale producers and workers as involved in multifunctional livelihood activities—that is, the right to produce food (rather than the right to commodify it). The overwhelming economistic language regarding investment privileges financial investment and trivializes small-producer culture, livelihood, and ”natural capital.” While the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) report on smallholder investments7 recognized “smallholders as the main investors in agriculture,” the CFS-RAI undermine that statement by affirming the truism that smallholders are the main investors only in their own agriculture.

For civil society, empowering small-scale producers and workers means to consolidate their knowledge and skills in working the land ecologically and harvesting, processing, and marketing foods for domestic consumers, and meeting the needs of public procurement schemes for redistribution and emergencies. These are the basics of “food sovereignty,” a term that found no entry into the principles. “Agro-ecological approaches” are mentioned in Principle 6 but only to be followed immediately by an emphasis on “sustainable intensification,” a euphemism created by the biotechnology industry and its allies to promote genetically modified proprietary seeds as a “package of desirable and appropriate technologies”8 that would offer solutions to climate challenges, cold, heat, and excessive moisture and increase nitrogen uptake through “genetic intensification.” Hidden behind the two terms agro-ecology and sustainable intensification, two opposing models for the future of agriculture thus are amalgamated: a corporate-led model of high-tech agriculture and a model building on the creativity and ingenuity of small-scale producers supported by participatory agronomic research, as the states, unable to take clear decisions, maneuvered in between these two models.

What role for the state?
One of the most heated but at the same time diplomatically disguised debates occurred about the inclusion of the imperative “do no harm,” taken from the multilaterally endorsed Ruggie Principles, which make business enterprises responsible for protecting and respecting human rights and for providing remedy in case of infringement. These principles, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, were in many respects precursors of the CFS-RAI principles that stressed states’ human rights obligations when they legislate for business enterprise.9 As Marc Edelman shows in an earlier FocaalBlog post, discussions are just beginning in Geneva to make these principles compulsory. In spite of this fact, however, the two major global players, the United States and China, supported by the private sector and Canada, resisted including the “do no harm” principle. As one spokesperson of the private sector phrased it, “It is up to countries in the plenary to decide whether they would want to adopt such absolutist language.”

The final draft of the principles fails to put strong emphasis on regulating investments. While it pays lip service to governance of investments by states in the public interest, it lacks the mention of any concrete strong measures. Effective public policies proposed by civil society are rephrased as extremely general statements of intent or remain anecdotal and ad hoc. Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) has been able to, we think, quite successfully sway the document, which would otherwise have been a monument to market-driven development, in the direction of rights-based language. However, the phrase “realization of the right to food in context of national food security” rings empty, as it is never systematically addressed—probably because of (dead) World Trade Organization think. The document that appears to be about investment avoids really tackling it—because the less said the better from the PSM/state perspective. At the next CFS meeting in October 2014, CSOs will not endorse the document, if Canada gets its way of eliminating the “free, prior and informed consent under the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples” (Principle 9, iv) from the document. However, the thorny question is, will they endorse it, if Canada cedes on this point? Implementation and monitoring by both the states and the CFS are promoted half-heartedly in the principles. The watchdog role is handed over to civil society. As the document states in paragraph 53, CSOs “are also encouraged to advocate for the appropriate use of the Principles, serve as drivers for transparency and accountability.” How are they supposed to play that role if the principles themselves have no teeth? Will the CSM get caught up in a hegemonic “land-grab trap” standing in for principles that trade unions, indigenous peoples, and other organizations, consulted all over the world, wanted strong and incisive, but turned out weak and entirely outside of their control?

Philip McMichael is Professor and Chair of the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University.

Birgit Müller is Senior Researcher at the IIAC-LAIOS, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.


Notes & References
1.Margulis, Matias E., Nora McKeon, and Saturnino M. Borras Jr. 2013. Land grabbing and global governance: Critical perspectives. Globalizations 10(1): 1–2.

2. McMichael, Philip. 2013. Land grabbing as security mercantilism in international relations. Globalizations 10(1): 47–64.

3. …which UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter characterized as “responsibly destroying the world’s peasantry” (2010).

4. Thus, the Thirty-Seventh Session Policy Roundtable, Item V (2011), and the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) report on smallholder investment (2013), as well as the smallholder decision box of CFS 40 (2013), emphasize that small-scale producers are the main investors in agriculture.

5. For example, the Bank acknowledges that earlier structural adjustment policies, which continue today, “dismantled the elaborate system of public agencies that provided farmers with access to land, credit, insurance inputs, and cooperative organization. The expectation was that removing the state would free the market for private actors to take over these functions…Too often, that didn’t happen” (World Development Report, 2008).

6. Müller, Birgit. 2014. Introduction: Seeds—Grown, governed, and contested, or the ontic in political anthropology. Focaal—Journal of Historical and Global Anthropology 69: 3–11.

7. HLPE. 2013. Investing in smallholder agriculture for food security : A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome. Full report forthcoming at

8. The Montpellier Panel. 2013. Sustainable intensification: A new paradigm for African agriculture, London, p. 21.

9. United Nations Human Rights Council. 2011. Guiding principles on business and human rights: Implementing the United Nations “protect, respect, and remedy” framework for business and human rights. Geneva and New York: United Nations. HR/PUB/11/04.

Original source: Focaal Blog

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