McLeod Group Blog

Land-Grabs Expropriate Poor Farmers’ Livelihoods

Guest Blog by Roy Culpeper

Chair, Coalition for Equitable Land Acquisitions and Development in Africa

March 27, 2014

Over the past decade and a half, huge swaths of land in the developing world have been wrested from the rightful owners, peasant farmers and pastoralists who typically have no formal property rights even though they and their forebears have worked the land for centuries. Often the dispossessed are moved onto marginal lands with poor access to water, undermining their livelihoods in areas of the world where food security is a chronic issue.  However, a growing tide of criticism, involving NGOs, the US Congress, and the United Nations, is confronting these land deals and their perpetrators.

 The extent of these “land-grabs” is enormous. One reliable estimate indicates that between 2000 and 2012, 83.2 million hectares of agricultural land was sold or leased. This represents an area equal to 90% of the land surface of the Province of Ontario. About two-thirds of these land deals are in Africa.

 Land has become one of the hottest investment assets available around the world and, with rising food prices, the profitability of corporate farming has soared. What is astonishing is the diversity of the investors involved in questionable land acquisitions. Some are Western financial institutions such as hedge funds and wealth funds. Others are from Asian countries such as China, India and South Korea, or the Gulf countries. Yet others are domestic elites keen to invest in domestic real estate. In all cases, it takes a willing partner in the local government to transact a land deal. Corruption is inevitably a factor. Often the customary tenants are served notice and evicted with little lead-time and no consultation. Also striking is how attractive the financial terms are to the investors, sometimes obtaining leases for 99 years at $2 per acre or less, with little or no taxation levied on the products from the acquired land.

 Particularly ironic is the fact that there is a desperate need for investment in agriculture, and strengthened food security, in regions where land-grabs are taking place. However, the agricultural produce from land-grabs caters not to the hunger of local people but to the needs of rich consumers and corporations elsewhere, for example, rice for the export market, sugar for soft drinks and other processed foods, or biofuels to feed the insatiable appetites of gas-guzzling drivers. A more equitable strategy for investment in agriculture would instead support the needs of peasant farmers to increase their productivity and yields with better infrastructure, research on local agronomy, and extension services. Most of all, it would strengthen, and not undermine, the access of farmers to their land, which is their most crucial productive asset.

 What can be done about this egregious assault on the livelihoods and rights of some of the world’s poorest citizens? Something can be achieved by naming and shaming the perpetrators. The Oakland Institute in California has exposed university endowments in the US, which include land-grab investments in their portfolios, leading to selective divestment. The international NGO Oxfam has waged a campaign against multinational corporations, such as Coca-Cola, sourcing their sugar—a key ingredient in soft drinks—from plantations utilizing unethically acquired land. To its credit, Coca-Cola has acknowledged the legitimacy of the concerns raised by Oxfam by announcing a “zero tolerance” policy on land-grabs. In addition, Oxfam has also pressured the World Bank to distance itself from financing agricultural projects that involve questionable land acquisitions.

 Last month there was an important sign that US legislators are now acknowledging the need to stop land-grabs. The 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Bill contained provisions to ensure that US development assistance funds are not being used to support activities that directly or indirectly involve forced displacement or evictions in certain regions of Ethiopia. The Oakland Institute has predicted that such displacements may affect over 1.5 million Ethiopians in a program of relocation that involves harassment, intimidation and beatings by security forces.

 As yet there is little awareness, let alone concern, among Canadians about the problem of land-grabs in poor countries. Parliament should consider hearings to air the issue and consider the bold initiatives undertaken by Oxfam, the US Congress, and the UN, among others. The deprivation of land from the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people amounts to an abuse of fundamental human rights. And given the scale of land-grabs, it ought to be treated as a crime against humanity.