The last few years has seen an increase in acquisitions of land (mainly for agricultural use) in developing countries. This wave of investment in land, dominated by international investors has led to fears of “land grabbing”. Recent global trends are prompting a massive increase in global commercial interest in land and natural resources. Predicted medium and long term increasing food prices, demand for land to meet an increasing global demand for food and for animal feedstock as well as to produce feedstock for accelerating agrofuel production, and carbon-trading mechanisms that place a commercial value on standing forests and rangelands are all factors that are causing steep increases in demand for land and in land values themselves.
A recent article detailing the threat to West Papua’s forest ecosystems and the communities that rely on them is illustrative of the key issues. (West Papua has been under the control of Indonesia since 1969).
“The recent growth of palm oil plantations in Indonesia has been exponential, driven by the food and cosmetic industries and an anticipated biofuels boom as the world seeks alternatives to petrol. Ironically, the country’s carbon-sequestering forests are being cleared to make way for these plantations…
Based on ancient systems of ancestral tenure, much of West Papua’s rainforest is actually owned by the indigenous population. But palm oil companies owned by powerful corporations are coercing communities into selling their land, sometimes for less than $1 a hectare. Promises to build schools and homes go unfulfilled, and villagers are left bereft of the ecosystems they have relied on for generations.
Even more concerning, a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency reveals that Norway is profiting from West Papua’s plantation boom…. The country’s Government Pension Fund – Global (GPFG), the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, is heavily invested in the Noble group, a Singaporean commodities trading company that is the majority shareholder in one such palm oil operation”.
The increasing interest in acquiring or leasing large tracts of land by investors based in the North and in food-importing countries for commercial production or domestic food security objectives, is creating unprecedented pressures on land resources, placing new tensions on land tenure systems and increasing inequality in economic and political power between the competitors. Those most vulnerable to losing access to land are small-scale producers with no formal tenure over the land that they use, as well as women, indigenous people, pastoralists, and fisher-folks.
The rapid growth of land grabbing in recent years has been driven by the dramatic increase in world food prices since 2007. This has led to two major groups seeing that it pays to invest in land: the first are the Gulf countries and emerging economies such as China and India. They want to secure their future food supply by buying or leasing huge areas of land in weaker countries. The other group is traditional investors, who have also seen that it pays to invest in land, for food and for biofuel, as both promise to be lucrative businesses for the future.
The largest land grabbers are not necessarily foreign investors in all countries. In Nepal it has been local elites who are responsible for the largest land scarcity. The cumulative effect of many people acquiring small plots of land for speculative purposes may be greater than that of two investors who purchase vast areas of land. (For more on land rights in Nepal, follow the link to CSRC)
To this end, behind the crisis of food security lies a deeper and more structural crisis that may make it many more times harder for the world’s 925 million hungry to escape from hunger – a crisis of land tenure security which may result in millions losing their access to land and natural resources. However, recognizing tenure rights of local land-users is an essential step towards enabling local communities to equitably benefit from these global demands.
After three years of discussion, the UN has agreed a document meant to protect local populations against land grabbing. It should help ensure the right to food. When big investors buy up land, small farmers are often driven from the land that feeds them. The voluntary guidelines specify how soil and land use rights, fisheries and forests should be handled. They are intended to increase transparency in land investment, give residents a greater say and especially to strengthen the position of the local small farmers.
The question is…how robust are these voluntary guidelines…and how well will they be adhered to?