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DFID Research: Check the fine print on land deals, conference participants urge

A report from the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing hosted by the Future Agricultures Consortium at the University of Sussex 6-8 April 2011

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New research on the global rush for agricultural land shows how small-scale farmer livelihoods and rights are increasingly at risk as land deals ignore local tenure rights and marginalise poor farmers and pastoralists. Fresh evidence about this trend in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union was presented at a recent international conference on “global land grabbing” convened by the Land Deal Politics Initiative and hosted by theFuture Agricultures Consortium at the University of Sussex, where it was revealed that land deals amounting to over 80m hectares had been documented, a figure nearly twice that previously estimated.

The stakes are high for displaced peasant farmers, women and children, as well as national governments where land is being leased in large amounts. With land deals accelerating, particularly in Africa, it is essential that the fine print of such deals is subject to careful scrutiny, and open, transparent and accountable governance mechanisms are put in place.

Research discussed at the conference showed how the rush to acquire land is driven by four factors: food price volatility and unreliable markets, the energy crisis and agro energy/biofuels seen as a solution, the global financial crisis, and a new developing market for carbon trading. Proponents of these deals say they are competitive, they economise on labour and they produce volumes sufficient for export and at prices that keep food cheap for poor consumers. But, as research from Cambodia to Cameroun to Colombia presented at the conference showed, the social and environmental costs of such deals are often not accounted for.

“Small-scale family agriculture, on which most of the world’s rural poor still depend, is threatened by large-scale plantations, export-led agriculture and the production not of food but commodities.” said Olivier de Schutter, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in his opening speech at the conference.

But policies that can curb the power of investors, while securing land tenure and property rights for farmers, require state reforms and must precede land deal negotiations. “The establishment of regulations and norms at multilateral levels is critical” said Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies in South Africa. “Small-scale farmers need national level regulations and institutions - the African Union’s Land Policy Guidelines can help in this regard”, she argued.

These policies also must also deliver on human rights said Sofia Monsalve from FIAN International as “forced evictions, the foreclosure of land, the denial of information about deals and the prevention of local participation in political decisions” violate land users human rights.

But the conference highlighted ways to escape the trend that sees smallholders’ options increasingly constrained. Reorienting agricultural investment away from land deals for large plantations or estates towards highly productive and efficient small-scale family agriculture and markets, supported by stronger farmer voices, was seen as critical. Participants pointed to securing land rights as central to ensuring equitable agricultural development.

Conference papers showed how land grabs, either through economic or physical means, are, as Teo Ballve from University of California at Berkeley put it, actually the “last step in a long chain of violent events”, perpetrated against peasant farmers and pastoralists. This commodification and privatization of land and dispossession of farmers and herders is seldom taken into account in the boardrooms of corporations or in high-level meetings with governments. Yet, some argued, with the right international regulatory mechanisms, national government commitment to land rights and stronger farmer voices holding both governments and investors to account, there are ways that local food security and responsible land deals can coexist.

However, this only will happen if the deals are effectively negotiated; something that rarely happens today. Mahnaz Malik from the International Institute for Sustainable Development pointed out that “the fine print - no matter how boring - has major implications”. This applies to specific land deal contracts, but also wider investment treaties. For example, certain clauses are highly restrictive, meaning that states are locked in to particular agreements over long periods. New laws to protect the environment or labour rights for instance cannot be implemented, as they may be subject to disputes and later prohibitive compensation payments.

Bilateral investment treaties, meant to attract much-needed investment to developing countries, are particularly problematic, Malik argued. There are currently 48 such treaties in Pakistan, she explained. Globally there are over 3000 across 183 counties, with many emerging from European countries, with Germany, Netherlands and the UK being particularly significant. These treaties allow private individuals or companies to bring claims against governments in international tribunals, where the scales are balanced very much in favour of the investor. By contrast, the rights of land holders affected by land deals are currently governed only by voluntary agreements and overarching principles, with no legally-binding requirements.

Participants at the conference therefore advised extreme caution when governments or communities negotiate land deals. The track record to date has been poor, and while investment is critical for agriculture, the rush into long-term land leases is a dramatic step, with numerous risks and often substantial costs.


Report by Jun Borras, Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones and David Hughes


More information

The Future Agricultures Consortium aims to encourage critical debate and policy dialogue on the future of agriculture in Africa. It is a growing partnership involving research-based organisations in Africa and the UK, with core funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

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Published 6 May 2011