This study of large land acquisitions in developing countries published by the International Land Coalition (ILC) finds more evidence of harm than benefits. More than 40 organisations collaborated on the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project, which synthesised 27 case studies, thematic studies and regional overviews. The report also includes the latest data from the ongoing Land Matrix project to monitor large-scale land transactions, and covers a full decade of land deals from 2000-2010. Those deals amount to more than 200 million hectares of land – or eight times the size of the United Kingdom.
The topic of this report is most commonly referred to as “land grabbing”. It has attracted global attention since 2008, with a series of highly publicised transnational agreements involving the lease of land areas of unprecedented size. Since then, it has become clear that this phenomenon is really more diverse, of a larger scale, and perhaps less novel that it had first appeared. While the most publicised deals have been transnational in nature and focused on food and biofuels production, they are hard to separate analytically from wider trends of increasing commercial pressures on land characterised by a more diverse range of actors, scales, and economic drivers. They are part of longer-term historical processes of economic and social transformation. Yet with the intensification of commercial pressures on land since the food price crisis of 2008, these processes have entered a new phase. It is in this sense that this report speaks of a new “land rush”. High global demand for land is likely to continue for the long term, although the steep increase witnessed between 2005 and 2008 may level off.
Key findings are as follows:
- The land and resource rights and livelihoods of rural communities are being put in jeopardy by the prevailing model of large-scale land acquisition. There is little in the findings to suggest that the term “land grabbing” is not widely deserved.
- The poor are bearing disproportionate costs, but reaping few benefits, because of poor governance, including the weak protection of their resource rights, corrupt and unaccountable decision-making, the sidelining of their rights within trade regimes, and the policy neglect of smallholder agriculture. Women are particularly vulnerable.
- The weak legal protection of resources held under customary tenure makes local people vulnerable to dispossession as governments make land available for private acquisition. Lands and resources which they traditionally own and use in common are especially vulnerable to loss.
- Insufficient action is being taken by host governments to limit the further impoverishment of ruralcommunities that may be expected from the “land rush”. Nor is international law being properly put to work in service of this requirement.
- The challenge is to stop dispossession and land allocations that do not serve a genuine public interest, to legally recognise the rights of the rural poor, and to steer towards more equitable models that give a key role to existing land users.
- The land rush is not only about food and farmland. Of cross-referenced deals for which the commodity is known, 78% are for agricultural production, of which three-quarters are for biofuels. Mineral extraction, industry, tourism, and forest conversions are also significant contributors, adding up to the remaining 22%.
- Africa is the prime target of the land rush, accounting for 134 million hectares of reported deals, of which 34 million hectares have been crossreferenced. The next largest target is Asia with 29 million hectares cross-checked.
- The best land is often being targeted for acquisition. It is often irrigable, with proximity to infrastructure, making conflict with existing land users more likely.
- National elites are playing a major role in land acquisitions, despite the common focus on foreign actors. Foreign direct investment (FDI) is also largely intra-regional.
This is an interesting chart, showing the important role that biofuels are playing in driving land acquisitions:
The latest rush for farmland was triggered primarily by the food price crisis of 2007–2008. But the land rush is likely to continue into the long term because of the trends that are driving it. Ultimately, the drivers of increasing competition for land are population growth and growing consumption by a global minority. The more immediate drivers include market demands for food, biofuels, raw materials, and timber. An emerging driver is carbon offset markets, which have already prompted large-scale land acquisitions. Speculative capital flows attracted by the expectation that land values will increase were also reported by the case studies.
To address the problem the report concludes that policy makers need to:
- Acknowledge and respect the resource rights of rural people in all large-scale land transactions
- Legally recognise the land rights of the rural poor, including over the commons
- Put smallholder production at the centre of strategies for agricultural development
- Make international human rights law work for the rural poor
- Make decision-making over land inclusive, transparent, and accountable
- Ensure environmental sustainability in decisions over land- and water-based acquisitions and investments
Anseeuw, W., L. Alden Wily, L. Cotula, and M. Taylor. 2012. “Land Rights and the Rush for Land: Findings of the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project”. ILC, Rome.
You can find the report here.