Untangling the myth of the global land rush
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.
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.
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.
There is growing evidence that the surge in foreign interest in land is the driver behind domestic land acquisitions by urban elites.
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.
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).
The International Land Coalition uses crowd-sourcing mechanisms to detect new land deals around the world.
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.
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
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.
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.
In Liberia, huge areas of land are being converted rapidly into palm oil plantations in the hands of Asian investors.
A large impact study in West Africa shows that there is no incentive to modernise among local farmers or communities.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.