Untangling the myth of the global land rush

Food Security,Inclusive Economy,Peace & Security01 Apr 2013Evert-jan Quak, Annelies Zoomers

Land grabbing threatens food security and increases inequality

The global land rush has not lifted small-scale farmers out of poverty, nor has it increased agricultural productivity and food security. Speculative land acquisitions often leave fertile land unused, and deprive local communities of vital resources.

Rapid growth in large-scale land acquisitions by a great variety of new actors is fuelling a rush for land that can be witnessed all over the world from Russia, Cambodia, Mozambique and Senegal to Colombia. Access to land is of crucial importance in combating poverty and inequality and promoting local development and food security, as it provides millions of people with access to natural resources and, as such, provides them with food, income and employment. Now the pressure on fertile land is growing, it seems that the poorest communities are losing out, driving up inequality within regions and threatening food security.

Initially, the discussion was solely about the impact of large-scale land acquisitions by Qatar and other Gulf States in Africa to secure their food production, and concerns about the expansion of biofuels in prime agricultural areas in developing countries. The debate is now broader, however. International drivers of large-scale land acquisitions are diverse, as a consequence of changing demands in a rapidly urbanising world. Foreign investors seek land to develop tourism, wealthy foreigners are buying houses, and companies and governments purchase land to create special economic zones, mining projects or urban extensions. NGOs are investing in nature reserves or planting trees for carbon compensations. And emigrants send back large parts of their earnings to their countries of origin, which are increasingly used to buy houses and land.

Domestic investors on the rise

This land rush is not only global. In most countries, land acquisitions by foreign investors are just a small part of all large-scale land acquisition, with growing domestic urban elites also joining the rush to buy land. They are mainly city-based and have no professional competence in agriculture. A survey in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger showed that in 2010, of the 225 leases issued, 217 were given to domestic investors. 2 Although the average size of the plots acquired by these investors is much smaller than those of international investors (almost 85 hectares), the cumulative effect is significant. 3

Land transactions are seldom accompanied by specifications on land use or other contractual obligations. Furthermore, national actors often fall below the radar of global-level studies because they are rarely regulated or facilitated by public agencies, and because individual transactions tend to be smaller. City-based land investors were traditionally interested in land close to the cities, but colonisation and expansion are now penetrating more deeply into areas further away from the cities. 4

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Land acquisitions as objects of speculation

There is growing evidence that the surge in foreign interest in land is the driver behind domestic land acquisitions by urban elites. 5 Nationals may acquire land with the aim of reaching a deal with foreign companies or acting as intermediaries between these companies and the local population. Their financial, economic and often political connections enable them to establish control over natural resources, and to position themselves at the interface with national or international companies. This also explains why, after purchasing the land, they rarely make follow-up investments to turn them into productive farms.

Land speculation is therefore one of the drivers of land acquisition, with the consequence that large areas of land are often not even cultivated or developed in any other way. 6 Land acquisitions are motivated not by demand for land-based commodities as such, but merely by expectations of rising land values as a result of rising demand. Such speculation involves both national and transnational actors, such as hedge funds. 7 In Uruguay and Nepal, for example, land has been used as a safe haven for international investments, given the global weakness of bond and equity markets in recent years. However, this has caused dramatic land price inflation, encouraging further speculation, also by local elites. 8

Opportunity or threat

Although the interrelations between local and international factors are now the subject of studies on the land rush, in much research they are still separate objects of study. Furthermore, there is still uncertainty about the scale of land grabbing. Land transfers are mostly invisible, many deals are made behind closed doors and do not appear in statistics. Estimations vary widely (see box), not only because of the invisibility of the deals but also because there are all kinds of definitions of what large-scale land acquisition exactly is (in terms of size, but also in legal terms).

Scale of land grabbing

The International Land Coalition uses crowd-sourcing mechanisms to detect new land deals around the world. 9 Their Land Matrix includes deals reported as approved or under negotiation worldwide between 2000 and 2010 amounting to a total of 203 million hectares, equivalent to over eight times the size of the United Kingdom. Of these, deals for 71 million hectares have so far been triangulated and cross-referenced. However, the World Bank estimated in its 2011 report that in 2010 47 million hectares of large-scale land acquisitions took place. 10 Some civil society organisations come up with other figures. The Global Land Project cites a minimum of around 10 million hectares each in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Congo, and in the 27 African countries screened, it noted 177 deals covering between 51 and 63 million hectares. 11 In recent research Oxfam/Novib estimates the total number of land deals at almost 1,500 (80 million hectares), mostly used for the production of food (37%) or biofuels (35%). 12

Although large-scale land purchases by foreign players, the ‘foreignisation’ of land ownership, can be seen in Latin America and Asia, all estimates of land grabbing show that it is in Africa where these investments are rife. Investors come from developed and emerging countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, the European Union, Brazil, the United States and South Africa. For example, taking the data from the Land Matrix of the International Land Coalition, Africa is the prime target of the land rush, accounting for 134 million hectares (66%) of reported deals, of which 34 million hectares have been cross-referenced. The next largest target is Asia with 29 million hectares cross-checked.

The World Bank and many aid donors believe that large-scale land acquisitions are beneficial for agricultural productivity and rural development as they generate more efficient food markets that can increase food security, employment and tax revenues. Consequently, national and local governments in developing countries are promoting these land deals as beneficial for economic growth. 13 In its 2008 World Development Report, 14 for example, the World Bank welcomed the opportunity for investments in agricultural production and infrastructure through large-scale acquisitions of land as it believed smallholder farmers can benefit from it.

A number of important studies published in 2009 were among the first to analyse the real impact and new trends in large-scale land acquisitions in Africa. The IIED, FAO and IFAD published Land Grab or Development Opportunity?, 15 followed by Michael Kugelman and Susan L. Levenstein’s book Land Grab? The Race for the World’s Farmland16 In 2010, the World Bank published Rising Global Interest in Farmland17 All the reports recognised multiple problems surrounding land deals. Most related to local communities that are not aware of land deals made in their region.

The reports revealed that land deals were not opening up unoccupied (empty) land, as was believed, but that the new investors ‘competed’ with small-scale farmers for access to fertile land. According to the authors, the problems could be reversed with codes of conduct and better land governance. Local communities need to be consulted before any land deals, and guidelines are required to minimise the risks and maximise the opportunities of the investments. These reports insist that land investments have very often failed because of a lack of management, and that the problem should be solved through capacity building, better market mechanisms and management.

In addition, there are more critical voices from civil society (Via Campesina, Oxfam, GRAIN, International Land Coalition), while the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, has also emphasised from a human rights perspective the aggressive way in which foreign investors purchase land, mostly from central governments, resulting in small–scale farmers with no land titles having to move out to make way for the cultivation of palm oil, flowers and soy – all non-food products for the export market. Such large land deals make claims on other natural resources too, in particular water, which also affects food production by local smallholders. The rise of non-food export commodities on land formerly used by small-scale farmers increases local food insecurity and conflicts. 18

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Impact analysis

A growing number of empirical and impact studies by civil society and academics show exactly where local communities lose out and where they may have benefitted from ‘land grabbing’. They give an insight into local dynamics, resistance and impacts. Research shows a variety in impact and outcome, indicating how complicated it is to draw general conclusions. 19 In Vietnam and Indonesia, for example, large-scale investments are not leading to poverty reduction and are sources of conflict. 20 In the north of Cambodia, incoming investors are rapidly reducing areas inhabited by indigenous people, which can no longer be used for their traditional way of living. Although investors bring money into the area, local opportunities for indigenous people are zero. Workers from other parts of the country not only get the best jobs, but also tend to occupy parts of the land for their own purposes – reducing the territory of indigenous people even more. 21

In Liberia, huge areas of land are being converted rapidly into palm oil plantations in the hands of Asian investors. 22 The change to non-food crops is an economic choice but as a result, local citizens face higher food prices and rising food insecurity. Palm oil is used for biofuels, whose popularity is driven by the climate change agenda. Other aspects of this agenda fuel conflicts in Vietnam, where large-scale land acquisitions for reforestation and national parks are limiting local farm communities’ use of their land. Government should, therefore, incorporate stronger measures to guarantee food security and livelihoods in national Poverty Reduction Strategies and future concession negotiations to prevent conflict resurgence. 23

A large impact study in West Africa shows that there is no incentive to modernise among local farmers or communities. 24 New investors are often no more productive than traditional farmers, despite claims by local authorities to defend land grabbing. This is also the conclusion of an impact study from Ghana on the opportunities offered to local communities by palm oil plantations. 25 The overall conclusion is that local communities suffer from constraints to access land and face higher food prices, but that they can benefit from better road infrastructure, energy supply and health and schooling facilities.

It is safe to conclude that positive spill-over effects of large-scale land acquisitions are rare and that rural communities are much more vulnerable after such land deals. But there is much more debate on how these investments can be made beneficial for local people. Is there any reason to suggest there is a spill-over effect that can trigger modernisation impulses among local farmers? And, do land investments in tourism or retirement housing by foreigners generate new local markets and increase demand for small farmers?

New players: migrants

The phenomenon of residential migration by retired wealthy people was long concentrated on Americans from Canada and the United States who settled in countries like Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama (known as pensionados). They live in gated communities where local authorities often have little power. Now the phenomenon is increasing in other parts of the world, e.g. in the Maghreb countries and in South Africa, and in Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia.

Another increasingly important factor causing the land rush, which may be connected to residential migration, are international migrants who live (temporarily) in Europe, the United States or other regions, like the Gulf States. Research shows that a considerable part of the remittances they send back is used to acquire houses and land. Apart from purchasing land, migrants also use their money to formalise property rights, to rent or lease land, or to enter into sharecropping agreements.

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Voluntary guidelines

In the past three decades, economic policies promoted by international donors like the World Bank have laid the groundwork for international investors to acquire land as government intervention and trade barriers have been removed. Export-oriented policies have been encouraged, which have reduced small-scale production. Land markets have been promoted through simplified individual private property regimes. However, under individual tenure, rangelands have become unproductive, and preventing ecosystem damage has no longer been a shared value and imperative. 26

Although promoting free trade and deregulation are still common, increased evidence of the negative impact of large-scale land acquisitions on rural communities has put the issue of land grabbing on the political agenda. The tone is more critical and legislation and interventions on land markets are being taken more seriously. So what has changed and what can governments do to protect their communities against ‘bad’ land deals?

Mozambique recently decided to establish a moratorium on new large-scale land concessions as the proclaimed benefits never materialised. Other countries, like Argentina, followed. They are now working on new land governance mechanisms, but these take time to be written and implemented. International NGOs and multilateral donor organisations are working together with governments on codes of conducts and better compensation mechanisms for local communities. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has developed Voluntary Guidelines for the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forestry, which are based on the right to land for local communities. They give local NGOs and communities the opportunity to object to controversial deals at international level if their countries have signed the guidelines.

The Special Rapporteur for the right to food has presented principles for host states and investors to ‘ensure the informed participation of local communities, adequate benefit sharing, and modes of agriculture that respect the environment’.  The World Bank is working on principles for the private sector, which include land governance. It is promoting round table negotiations in which all stakeholders are involved in developing (minimum) principles of how soy, palm oil and bananas should be produced. Most of the existing negotiations exclude Africa and focus on Latin America and Asia, therefore neglecting the high percentage of land deals on the continent.

Economic reform

These codes of conduct, voluntary guidelines and principles are a positive way to tackle the most irresponsible land investments. But they are not enforceable by governments, are not used in an integrated approach, and do not address the problems that cause the rush for land. 27 These problems are the result of the commoditisation of nature and neoliberal policies in general, rather than narrowing the causes of the land rush solely to the current food, climate and energy crisis. Land-titling programmes and codes of conducts are therefore a continuation of the same economic principles.

Furthermore, land governance and policies focussing on land grabbing narrow the scope of the problem and the solution to agriculture. However, urban expansion, infrastructure projects, mining, special economic zones, and tourism projects also spark the rush for land and speculative forces to purchase land in rural areas that affect rural communities. Finally, there is no coherence between policies on food security, climate change, biodiversity and poverty eradication. One problem can be solved (for example REDD and REDD+ to tackle carbon emissions by fast reforestation projects) but create others (small farmers losing their land). A much more interdisciplinary way of policy-making should therefore be enforced.

There is one thing we can start with: emphasising that small-scale farmers are the key to economic development and food security and to tackling climate change. If governments can ensure that agricultural investment policies support small farmers, because of their contribution to the further development of their countries, there is no sense in selling off fertile land to large-scale foreign or domestic actors. This also means making investments in social movements and farmers’ organisations, as they have to strengthen their position as economic drivers. Large-scale land acquisitions can only fulfil their potential as responsible investments if they do not damage the potential force of small-scale farming, but are comprehensive.


1. See: Annelies Zoomers, Rushing for Land: Equitable and sustainable development in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in Development, a publication of the Society for International Development, issue: Global Land Grabs, Volume 54, no. 1, March 2011; Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor (2012), Land Rights and the Rush for Land Findings of the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project, IIED, CIRAD, International Land Coalion.
2. Thea Hilhorst, Joost Nelen,  Nata Traoré  (2011), Agrarian change below the radar screen: Rising farmland acquisitions by domestic investors in West Africa, Results from a survey in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, Paper prepared for the international conference on global land grabbing organised by the Land Deals Politics Initiative ( LDPI) in collaboration with the Journal of Peasant Studies and hosted by the Future Agricultures Consortium at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.
3. (Cotula et al. 2009; Deininger et al. 2010) and also noted in some of the ILC case studies (O’Brien 2011; Calvan and Ablola 2011)
4. Thea Hilhorst, Joost Nelen,  Nata Traoré  (2011)
5. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor (2012)
6. Phuc Nguyen Quang, Guus van Westen (2013), Coping with Land Conversion from Agriculture to Industrial and Urban Development in Vietnam. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor (2012)
7. UNCTAD 2009
8. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor (2012)
10. Klaus Deininger and Derek Byerlee (red.), Rising Global Interest in Farmland. Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits?, World Bank, 2011,
12. and
13. John G. Galaty, ‘Unused’ Land and Unfulfilled Promises: Justifications for Displacing Communities in East Africa, paper for the International Academic Conference on Global Land Grabbing II, Cornell University, October 17-19, 2012
14. World Bank, World Development Report 2008, Agriculture for Development, Washington DC
15. Lorenzo Cotula, Sonja Vermeulen, Rebeca Leonard and James Keeley (red.), Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa, IIED/FAO/IFAD, London/Rome, 2009
16. Michael Kugelman and Susan L. Levenstein (red.), Land grab? The race for the world’s farmland, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 2009
17. Klaus Deininger en Derek Byerlee(2011)
18. See for example the publications of the Oakland Institute on Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa
19. Like those presented at the second Global Land Grab Conference in 2012. See:
20. Paul Burgers, Rizki Pandu Permana and Tran Nam Tu (2011), Fuelling conflicts: overcoming asymmetry between global interests in Vietnam and Indonesia, in Development, Volume 54, no. 1, March 2011
21. Research by Guus van Westen, University of Utrecht, in his presentation at the March 2011 Global land rush conference
22. Lakshmi Balachandran, Everyone must eat? Liberia, Food Security and Palm Oil, paper for the International Academic Conference on Global Land Grabbing II, Cornell University, October 17-19, 2012
23. Paul Burgers, Rizki Pandu Permana and Tran Nam Tu (2011)
24. Thea Hilhorst, Joost Nelen,  Nata Traoré  (2011)
25. Susanne Johanna Väth, Gaining neighbours or disruptive factors – what happened when large-scale land-based investment in the Ghanaian oil palm sector met the local population on the ground?, paper for the International Academic Conference on Global Land Grabbing II, Cornell University, October 17-19, 2012
26. Land Research Action Network, Introduction: Global Land Grabs: Investments, risks and dangerous legacies, in Development, a publication of the Society for International Development, issue: Global Land Grabs, Volume 54, no. 1, March 2011
27. Annelies Zoomers, Grootschalige Landverwerving in Afrika, International Spectator, Volume 66, no. 7/8, July/August 2012