Missing part of the picture in challenging Africa’s “land grab” counter-narrative

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Los Despojados | 8 February 2016
 
Missing part of the picture in challenging Africa’s “land grab” counter-narrative
 
Back in October, a piece published in Foreign Policy (which we duly shared on the blog) pointed out how the much talked about great African land grab is only taking place on paper, with investors jumping on apparent opportunities only to pull out once they start getting a better sense of the institutional, legal, and technical barriers they will have to overcome. Now, Chris Jochnick fires back, arguing that the Foreign Policy piece missed the point. 
 
Indeed, if well-funded, well-connected, and well-educated investors are walking away from African land because of insecure property rights, how can we expect underfunded, poorly connected (literally and figuratively), and poorly educated African farmers to make a go of it? [Read full article]
 
Jochnick goes on to argue that property rights would allow African [insert Africa-is-a-country joke here] farmers to invest in their own land and achieve their potential. 
 
While this is a good point in theory, we’d like to counter that property rights are a double-edged sword. Yes, property rights open new opportunities (like access to credit) and eliminate certain threats (like usurpation), but they also open up a whole new market dynamic that may actually facilitate land concentration. This can happen through a number of mechanisms:
 
  • Peasants who enter into a market competition dynamic are usually at a structural disadvantage vis-à-vis larger landowners and corporations who have better access to technology, capital, markets, and political influence. As a result, they fail to compete, going into debt and having to sell their land. This is why it should come as no surprise that governments and institutions with a neoliberal bent, such as the World Bank, are promoting land titling projects, or as critics call them ‘land commodification’ projects. Far from being a pro-poor policy, it’s actually part of the World Bank’s standard pro-capital policy prescriptions. 
  • In agricultural frontier zones, large landowners and corporations often pressure peasants to obtain legal title to the lands they farm only to buy the lands on the cheap as soon as the title is issued. The peasants can then go further into the frontier, cutting down more forest, until the cycle repeats. This happens in countries where laws allow small farmers to colonise ‘state’ lands but restrict corporations’ ability to do so in the interest of promoting a more egalitarian distribution of land ownership without expropriating anyone. Securing property rights in this more-common-than-you’d-think legal situation amounts to a loophole that corporations can exploit to control vast amounts of land.
  • Finally, the “Colombian model”, developed in periods of unrest during Colombia’s protracted civil war, involves physically threatening peasants to sell their property rights, usually at a discount take-it-or-leave-it price. A common phrase reported by victims of such land grabs is “you can sell now or we’ll come later and talk to your widow”. 
 
All three of these mechanisms are at work, for example, in Guatemala, where much of this blog’s attention has been focused as of late (including reports of the exact phrase “you can sell now or we’ll come later and talk to your widow” as if it were copy-pasted from Colombia) and have been integral to the expansion of oil palm and sugargcane monocultures on indigenous land, so forgive us for putting a damper on Jochnick’s optimism about property rights. 
Original source: Los Despojados
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