Farmers' Networks Urge Government Action Against Land Grabbing

The article below was published in South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) SUNS #7239 dated 14 October 2011.  We thank SUNS and IPS for permission to re-distribute this article.

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Farmers' Networks Urge Government Action Against Land Grabbing

Rome, 12 Oct (IPS/Sabina Zaccaro) -- Civil society organisations and global farmers' networks are gathered in Rome this week to ask governments to stop the "disastrous practice of land grabbing", ahead of next week's Committee on World Food Security.

From October 11 to 14, the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is running inter-governmental negotiations on land governance.

After six years of negotiations involving governments, international organisations and civil society groups, this session is expected to adopt voluntary guidelines on responsible governance of land and other natural resources.

These guidelines would protect and strengthen access to land, fisheries and forests for indigenous peoples and small-scale producers, especially women.

According to farmers' organisations, the guidelines currently under negotiation could become an instrument "to keep financial speculation out of peoples' lands, water and forests and to overcome a system of governance that facilitates the takeover of peoples' natural resources by corporate investors and other powerful actors".

Delegates from the global farmers' network La Via Campesina, the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty and the Italian Committee for Food Sovereignty are taking part in the negotiations.

The issue seems most crucial now that the global food and financial crises have made maintaining livelihoods impossible for farmers, their communities and small-scale producers unless their land is preserved.

A recent report by Oxfam identified 227 million hectares of land, an area the size of northwest Europe, as having been reportedly sold or licensed - largely in Africa and mostly to international investors - through thousands of secret deals since 2001.

Earlier this year, the World Bank identified 56 million hectares of "grabbed" land, again predominantly in Africa.

The issue implicates Europe and the US equally. According to a recent report on land grabbing, released earlier this month by Friends of the Earth, more than 60 percent of land consumed in Europe is imported, while US demand for imported land increased by 100 million hectares between 1997 and 2004.

The report stated, "Europe uses the equivalent of 1.5 times its own area in land. Germany and the UK are among the top land import dependent countries, each importing more than 80 million hectares a year. Average land consumption in the EU is 1.3 hectares per capita, while countries such as China and India use less than 0.4 hectares per capita. The US consumes more than three hectares per capita, four times as much as India."

In many cases, land is being used to grow crops for biofuel markets.

"We want to make sure that governments understand our position on the disastrous (impacts) of land grabbing on international investments in agriculture," Kalissa Regier, youth vice president of Canada's National Farmers Union (NFU) and member of La Via Campesina, told IPS.

"The situation is particularly disastrous for young farmers. Every time farmland is (taken) from the rural community, it can never be regained by families or the younger generation who once had a chance to be part of their land, part of their families' heritage."

Areas where farmers have secure land tenure and access to arable land have decreased incidence of food insecurity, she added. But once land is lost "through land grabbing, corporate investments in agriculture or government investments in farmland", it cannot be regained, she said.

Regier, an organic grain producer in Canada, said the impacts of this issue would last for hundreds of years and stressed that land grabbing is not limited to the global South, but that people around her were experiencing it as well.

Land grabbing is "manifesting itself differently depending on the social and economic structures" in different regions, she said. " In Africa, Asia and South America, you see the disastrous impacts of poverty, hunger and displacement of communities," while North America has seen many of its youth shift from rural areas into cities alongside huge amounts of foreign investment in farmland.

Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, recently urged the adoption of common guidelines on land governance.

He stressed that "governments should be wary of speculation and concentration of ownership when land rights are transferred to private investors to develop farmland". He added, "Harmful investments to the detriment of local populations - or land grabbing - can only be warded off if we first secure the underlying rights of farmers, herders and fisherfolk."

On Tuesday, farmers' delegates in Rome submitted the Dakar Appeal, a document prepared during the 2011 World Social Forum in Senegal, to the president of the UN Committee on Food Security (CFS).

The appeal, endorsed by over 700 organisations worldwide, calls on governments to put an end to land grabbing and urges the CFS to reject the World Bank principles for responsible agricultural investment.

Farmers are also extremely concerned about the implementation of guidelines.

"We are participating (in high-level discussions) here... but finally we want this paper to be reflected in the life of the woman who depends on fish from the lake, whose children go to sleep hungry because the fish in the lake have been taken by a big company from another country," Rehema Bavuma, a Ugandan delegate from the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, told IPS.

Bavuma lives on the bank of Lake Victoria, Uganda. "Traditionally, women and men near the lake have depended (exclusively) on fish. The men fished and the women cooked or smoked the fish, for eating or selling to their neighbours."

However, Bavuma said, this is not happening anymore. "They still live near the lake but they are not allowed to fish because the government has given rights to big companies to take fish from the lake and sell it, but local people cannot afford to buy it, as it is very expensive."

"These people have no food, no jobs, no water and no income. If our governments negotiate (guidelines) on behalf of their peoples, we want to see (those rules) adopted and implemented." She added that land grabbing affects water supplies and other resources as well.

Farmers' networks are expecting governments to take a strong position in the negotiations on land tenure by openly opposing land grabs and ensuring communities' rights and human rights are protected.

"We expect governments negotiating land tenure to approve strict guidelines that can rescue farmers from the hands of private speculators and safeguard small producers' and local communities' access to and control over natural resources, including land, water and forests," said Mamadou Ba, of the Conseil National de Concertation et de Cooperation des Ruraux, Senegal.

The outcomes of the FAO negotiations are expected by Friday.