Can the FAO tenure guidelines stop land and water grabs?

PLAAS | 23 January 2015

Can the FAO tenure guidelines stop land and water grabs?

by Ruth Hall

The past decade has witnessed global outcry over a new era of ‘land grabbing’ and, in response, there have been numerous efforts to halt and reverse the corporate takeover of community land. Initially presented as investors grabbing land from rural people, it has since become clear that most such ‘grabs’ involve national governments selling or leasing out land to private companies, often by dispossessing rural communities of their rights.

Though such moves may flout international law and human rights, they are mostly legal under national law – the result of the longstanding failure to recognize that customary and informal land rights constitute real property rights. This failure effectively renders invisible the tenure of millions of people across the world, and privileges only the minority of those in developing countries who hold private title to property. The conundrum then is how to address the deficiencies of national statutes that render land grabs – which are illegitimate and flout human rights – nominally legal under national law.

The FAO Tenure Guidelines: can they help?

The most significant global response to the land rush of the past decade has been the creation of the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of the Tenure of Land, Forests and Fisheries in the Context of National Food Security (Tenure Guidelines). The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) adopted these ‘Tenure Guidelines’ in 2012 after a few years of intense negotiations at regional and global levels, and with substantial input from civil society organisations, farmer associations and social movements.

The Tenure Guidelines build on existing binding international law and covenants to establish a human rights framework with which national law and policy need to conform. It is the most comprehensive guide for communities, investors and states, on how rights to land, fisheries and forests should be treated, both by states and by investors. This is one of the strengths of the Tenure Guidelines: they establish norms and benchmarks for both states and investors.

Yet there remains skepticism in many quarters about the extent to which the Tenure Guidelines can prompt changes in practice. On the one hand, technically they are voluntary – although all CFS member states have signed up to them, there are no mechanisms to compel compliance. But more worrying is that few government officials or investors seem even to be aware of them. And what is more, official implementation, via national governments, has started at a snail’s pace in only several countries, and monitoring systems are yet to be created.

Innovative action research will test the Tenure Guidelines

In this context, the FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), in cooperation with the Transnational Institute, the Institute for Social Studies and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, has launched an exciting and innovative new project, with the support of the International Development Research Council (IDRC) of Canada. The project is entitled ‘Bottom-up Accountability Initiatives and Large-Scale Land Acquisitions in Africa’ and will be implemented over the coming three years. Working with non-governmental organisations in Mali, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa, the project partners will experiment with using the Tenure Guidelines to support specific rural communities that are currently struggling to assert, defend or reclaim their rights.

The case studies range from forest-dwelling communities in Nigeria who are threatened by the expansion of oil palm plantations; farmers in Mali who are struggling to get their customary rights recognized; a fishing community on South Africa’s ‘Wild Coast’ who have been excluded from access to the sea by the introduction of a Marine Protected Areas and a ‘no-catch zone’; to communities living on the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria whose livelihoods are under threat by local elite land grabs and the introduction of commercial cage fish farming on the lake.

The partners in this project are Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes (CNOP, Mali), Environmental Rights Action / Friends of the Earth (ERA, Nigeria), Masifundise (South Africa) and Katosi Women’s Development Trust (KWDT, Uganda).
Fishers’ access to Lake Victoria under threat

We recently participated in the inception workshop for the project, held in Kampala, Uganda. During the workshop, we all set off on a one-day field trip to the fishing communities on the shores of Lake Victoria. Here, Katosi Women’s Development Trust (KWDT) has been working with local people and established women’s groups in each community to address water and sanitation problems as well as to develop new income-earning enterprises for women. But over time their main concerns have centered on land grabs and access to traditional fishing grounds.

Lining the gravel road from Kampala to Mpunge are homesteads surrounded by fruit trees – several banana species, mangoes and jackfruit. Most have fields of maize, sweet potato and cassava, providing essential staple foods, as well as tomatoes, cabbages, squash, spinach and other vegetables. But cash crops are also in evidence: coffee is laid out on plastic sheeting to be dried before being taken to the processing plant in the nearby town of Lugazi, and sugar is also a minor crop for some, who sell to the Madhvani mill in Jinja. Goats, cows and chickens roam around many of the homes in the villages, and a lively trade in eggs is in evidence, with trays stacked high and strapped onto bicycles. Brick-making and construction suggest growing settlements, and each village is marked by the ubiquitous airtime dealers.

Arriving at the shores of Lake Victoria, we weave our way through the alleys of Mpunge village to the shoreline where men are hard at work mending boats and nets. Close by, a marquee has been erected by KWDT and a large crowd has gathered. Buoyed by music from a PA system, the leaders of the women’s groups from 17 coastal communities all dressed in blue and white, dance in formation and lead us into the marquee. Here, KWDT holds a community dialogue, an opportunity for people to articulate their concerns about both the enclosure of portions of the lake for private fishing, and land grabbing on the coastal shores.

Land and water grabs go hand-in-hand

This much becomes rapidly clear: fishing communities don’t just need rights to fish. They need rights to land: to live on, to access landing sites, to process and sell their catch.

Local elite land grabs

While the global attention to ‘land grabs’ has drawn attention to mega-deals in which hundreds of thousands of hectares are traded, often to foreigners, the situation at Lake Victoria is an important reminder that most land grabs are small and involve local elites – either from within rural communities or national political and business elites.

Some people have been evicted from their land and homes because outsiders have registered private titles to the land – with government consent. But there are also complaints that although the law stipulates that 25 metres around the lake is public, the new elite that is acquiring shore-side plots are claiming their own beaches and preventing the local population from passing through to the lake.

One man at the dialogue complained:

‘We have people really suffering because of land grabbing… Some people come here and acquire titles even without the knowledge of our leaders. This is really affecting people on the edge of Lake Victoria because people come and just demarcate and prevent other people from accessing the lake.’

An elderly man who had been elected by the village to administer the public land complained that land administration systems have fallen apart. In the past, ‘there were markers to identify which land is for which family, but now, instead of coming with sketches, we only hear about land sales when they are done.’

‘There is no respect for our land area committees’, complains another man.

Another said:

‘We have no information about why we are being evicted. The people chasing us from the land are taking advantage of our ignorance.’
Fish cage farming

But the land conflicts are just the start of the problems. Already sections of the lake have been cordoned off for private cultivation, and Uganda’s State Minister for Fisheries, Ruth Nankibiriwa, recently announced government’s call for investors to submit their business plans for cage fish farming on the lake.

One man speaking at the community dialogue at Mpunge said:

‘We are aware of a plan to divide this lake into pieces and give them to land-scale fish cage farmers. But this is only in rumours, that when there are cage parks it will all be given to them and not to our communities.’

Cage fish farming has already taken off, but the plans to massively expand it have triggered fears that the exclusions people already experience are just a taste of things to come.

As one man said:

‘It is very difficult, even impossible for a local person to get into cage farming because it is so expensive – even up to 20 million Ugandan shillings. I call upon all community members to take our demand to government to allow us access to the lake.’

Despite flags and other markers to indicate no-go areas on the lake, local fishers have been frequently apprehended by private security and national guards. Their infringements relate not only to where they fish, but also their fishing gear, specifically the mesh size of their nets. There are allegations of torture, and even of people being dumped overboard and drowned.

As one woman reflected:

‘The lake used to be such a blessing to us, it was a gift from God. But now it’s a curse, it’s the major cause of death in our community. In the past, when a child got an education, we would give them a net. In those days it was the only food for us, but now our children hardly know fish.’

A man said:

‘The lake should be public property, for everyone’s benefit.’

Farming and fishing are interdependent

Securing rights to the land, access to the lake and rights to fish are demands that are interwoven in a society where identities as ‘farmers’ and ‘fishers’ are fairly fluid and where the economy is based on the linkages between these activities. The villages on the shores of the lake have more active cash economies than the inland villages, according to Margaret Nakato, director of KWDT, largely because of the incomes earned by fishers, and the reciprocal trade between fishers and farmers.

One of the women at the community dialogue explained it this way:

‘Some of us are small-scale farmers and we grow food for fishermen. If they [government] chase them away from the lake, we won’t have any market. Then what will we do? The government should realize that even the rich people in Kampala are surviving because of the fish being caught here, and the food we produce.’

Another woman pointed to the economic role of women downstream in the value chain, which has been undermined by the privatization of sections of their fishing grounds:

‘Even as women we used to be very active on the lake, smoking fish and selling fish. But the lake is no longer ours, it now belongs to a few people. Now we are only meant to get water from the lake.’

‘Most people here are migrants who lost their land elsewhere and came here’, explains another man, ‘and now we are at risk of losing the lake.’

Within the day, a new term is born: ‘lake grabbing’.

A litmus test for the Tenure Guidelines

The negotiations that took place in Rome to develop the Tenure Guidelines were to solve these kinds of problems, explains Margaret Natako, direct of KWDT. Pointing to project leader, Sofia Monsalve of FIAN, she says: ‘We are lucky that people who are part of these global processes like the Tenure Guidelines are able to visit us here to see our struggles on the ground.’ Also of importance for this community are the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication, adopted by the FAO Committee on Fisheries in 2011. ‘We contributed to both’, says Margaret. ‘These [guidelines] are meant to see that we strengthen our access to the land and to the lake resources.’

The situation of these people living, farming, fishing and trading on the shores of Lake Victoria will be a litmus test for the Tenure Guidelines. Can this agreement that country representatives spent years hammering out at the FAO Committee on World Food Security secure these people’s rights to the land and to the lake and its fish? If so, these convoluted multilateral processes will have borne fruit. If not, then global development agencies need to rethink how to halt the resource grab underway in so many countries of the Global South.

The Tenure Guidelines are no silver bullet. But in ongoing rural struggles, they are a tool that can and should be used to leverage change in favour of rural communities’ rights to the natural resources on which their livelihoods depend.

Who's involved?

Who's involved?


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