Where there is scarcity, there is also opportunity

International investment plays a vital role in development and poverty reduction worldwide due to the potential advantages it brings to the local populations: improved livelihoods, an ever extending job market, services and infrastructure. The recent rising interest in farmland should come as good news for small-scale farmers, pastoralists and more broadly, a country’s economy. But the opposite seems to be the case as the latest records of investment in land appear to result in food insecurity for millions of people living in poverty. Instead of increasing life standards, recent land investments seem to mostly bring dispossession, deception, violation of basic human rights and overall destruction of livelihoods. Local rights-holders are losing to local elites and domestic/foreign investors because they lack the power to effectively claim their rights and to defend their interests.

Land grabbing is not a new phenomenon, tracing back through centuries of human history, including pre-colonial land seizures associated with territorial wars, European enclosures in the North and dispossession of native peoples in North America and Australia. Many regions of the global South have been affected for a long time by this tendency, land being first grabbed by pre-colonial rulers through territorial wars with each other, then by colonial governments and increasingly by foreign or domestic corporations. What is of utmost importance in the current “land grab” debate is understanding the features of the new wave of land acquisition. Essentially, is not very different from previous struggles over land; what is different is the scale and speed at which the new pressures on land are occurring.

The 2007–2008 food prices crisis made investors and governments turn to agriculture after decades of neglect and then, at the first signs global financial crisis, they started looking more for new opportunities. Land scarcity and volatility of food prices on the world market have led richer countries that are dependent on food imports to acquire large amounts of land elsewhere to produce food for their domestic needs. Alongside the speed and scale of the trend, there is also leaning towards long-term leases, purchase or other economic arrangements. The basic land transactions typically range from 30 to 50 or even 99 years at a time, often with the option to renew. Also, even though the African continent is still a hot spot from this point of view, the trend has become global, reaching farther inside and outside the global South than initially reported. Recent research showed it happening virtually everywhere: throughout South and Central America, throughout South and Southeast Asia, and in many parts of the global North, particularly the former Soviet Eurasia. Recent data indicates that at least 33 million hectares of land deals have been identified since 2001 – an area 8 times the size of the Netherlands.

Like many other issues that do not receive enough international attention, this new form of colonialism is yet another struggle between the rich and poor of the world. Most frequently it happens without the free and informed consent of land-users, in corrupt deals between corporations and state representatives. The fight is of course uneven, local people, most of them with minimal or no education, do not stand a chance against their own fraudulent governments and the army of lawyers big companies usually surround themselves with. Rapid acquisitions of crucial food-producing lands by foreign private entities pose a threat to rural economies and livelihoods, land reform agendas and other efforts aimed at making access to food more equitable and ensuring the human right to food for all. In order to improve outcomes for these people, governments must ensure that land transfers do not take place without the free, prior, and informed consent of the affected communities. National governments have a duty to protect the rights and interests of local communities and land rights-holders in the virtue of their rights as citizens, but more and more often they fail to do so.There is international recognition of the rights of indigenous people and guidelines regarding land acquisition, rights and duties, but with far too little acknowledgement and too much of a voluntary character, due to lack of enforcement.

But not all hope is lost: as consumers of those goods, we do have the power that indigenous people lack. We can get informed about where our food comes from, how it is produced and at what expenses, we can ask for accountability and more transparency from the companies producing the goods we buy, we can ask our governments to put more pressure on other states’ representatives to adopt international applicable standards of good governance, with respect to their citizens’ rights. Host country governments, financiers and sourcing companies, the international community, civil society groups all have a role to play. They must address the failure at all levels to respect human rights, to steer investment in the public interest and to respond to one of the most alarming trends facing rural populations in developing countries today. We can all play a greater role in what regards exposure of bad habits, building transparency and disseminating information on the global land grab. The planet can feed us all, but it does not have to come at the expense of food waste on one end and destroyed livelihoods on the other.

Photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxfameastafrica/8455606074