Dear Friends and Colleagues

Shedding light on land grabbing

In recent years, there has been a push for what is termed as “responsible investment in agriculture” referring to efforts to impose constraints, norms, rules or standards on land deals in order to make them less harmful to people and the environment. Governments and inter-governmental agencies have drawn up a whole stack of guidelines and tools to facilitate compliance while civil society organisations have also joined the fray, all, however, with little success, according to a new article by GRAIN.

GRAIN analyses such “responsible” farmland investments from around the globe to see if they really do achieve the intended aims. It cites example after example showing that both politically and in practice, the concept rarely works to the advantage of local communities. In effect, the development of so-called “standards” has simply been to generate a whole new industry to accredit “responsible” land deals, thereby masking and legitimising land grabbing. GRAIN cites internal industry surveys which reveal that the primary motivation driving companies to adhere to standards on land investment is the risk to their reputations, i.e. to avoid the land grab label. In reality, there is often little implementation or enforcement of agreed standards/regulations; conversely, rampant violations are common.

The article identifies two strategies that do work: political pressure and exposing land grabs for what they really are: violent, devastating and usually unlawful. Media work, public scrutiny, campaigns, mobilisations, inquiries, resistance and direct action can actually drive land-grabbers out and away. Shedding light on the criminality that often underpins land deals is considered a more useful approach than trying to make investments more “responsible”. The article concludes that land grabbing, even under the best practices, is not compatible with food sovereignty, human rights and community well-being.

The final section of the paper is reproduced below.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
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The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that the push for so-called responsible investment in agriculture is not stopping land grabbing. In our view, the reasons for this are structural and stubborn. They include:

·         The voluntary nature of all these rules and guidelines fails to create legitimacy, and therefore cannot lead to change. Who decides what “responsible” is? What guarantees are there that investors will comply?

·         Companies know that they cannot be held to higher standards than national laws. If a country’s laws do not recognise community land rights or other rights as “legitimate,” they cannot be made to uphold them.

·         There is a political choice to be made between promoting agribusiness and promoting community-led farming and food systems. Those who argue that they are compatible or that they must be made compatible are the elites. For the communities who have to give up their lands and livelihoods to make way for large-scale agribusiness projects, compatibility is a myth.

Which brings us to the question: what does work? What has succeeded in or contributed to stopping land grabs in the last few years? Where should civil society focus its efforts?

We see that two things have helped the most. First, there is no doubt about it: political pressure works. What companies call “hype”- media work, public scrutiny, campaigns, mobilisations, inquiries, resistance and direct action- actually does drive investors out and away. We have seen this with Gulf State investors and European companies operating in Africa. We have seen projects stopped or scaled back in Cameroon, Tanzania and Madagascar. Communities relentlessly demanding their lands back have also had some success in Sierra Leone (Addax), Cameroon (Herakles), Tanzania (Serengeti) and elsewhere. Of course, this is not overnight work. But it is essential - and in desperate need of serious support.

Second, exposing land grabs for what they really are - violent and devastating, and in many cases unlawful - can work too. Land deals have flopped or been terminated due to corruption, disrespect for human rights, tax evasion and the like. Legal inquiries in Colombia revealed a massive level of fraud being committed by Cargill in its land acquisitions there, leading to legislative change thanks to a bold and progressive political bloc in the congress. Mounting evidence about wrongdoings committed by Indian investor Karuturi in Africa have brought the company under scrutiny and into the courts; Karuturi is now struggling to stay afloat.  In Senegal, investigative work by civil society revealed the shady origin and structure of the Senhuile-Senethanol project, which led to its director being fired and jailed, although the project persists. Important work by Global Witness to expose the role of Vietnamese “rubber barons” - and their supporters at Deutsche Bank and the World Bank - grab bing land in Cambodia and Laos for rubber production with impunity have started triggering changes. The point is that shedding light on the criminality that often underpins land deals might be a more useful approach than making the investments more responsible.

Of course, there is a need for diverse strategies and tactics. But for civil society groups, it is politically important to draw the line instead of trying to make land investments nicer, tamer, more inclusive, more sustainable and less abusive. Land grabbing, even under the best practices, is not compatible with food sovereignty, human rights and community well-being. It must be exposed for what it is and urgently stopped.