‘Land grab’: UN official for a fair deal

By Ashfak Bokhari

DAWN Economic & Business Review June 22-28, 2009


AS developing countries, including Pakistan, continue to offer their farmlands to foreign private investors and governments under nontransparent deals, the United Nations has stepped in to prevent what is being referred to as ‘land grab’ or ‘new form of agrarian colonialism’ and even ‘second scramble for Africa.’


The UN Special Rapporteur on this issue, Mr Olivier De Schutter, has proposed a set of 11 principles and measures to be observed by both buyers and sellers while negotiating land deals and leases. His move comes at a time when governments are to discuss ‘responsible’ investment in agriculture at the G8 summit being held in Italy next month and where Japan is to propose a set of principles for agricultural investments in developing countries.

While explaining the recommended principles at a press conference on June 11 in Brussels, Mr De Schutter hoped that these will help achieve a consensus on a multilateral approach. The principles are based on international human and labour rights laws, including the right to food, the right to self-determination of peoples and the right to development. Mr De Schutter, who was appointed the UN special rapporteur on food security in 2008, wants G8 leaders to adopt the principles he has proposed. The African Union is currently discussing the possibility of adopting these guidelines.

If the land acquisition deals are not transparent and not based on human rights principles, numerous problems will crop up in near future leading to collapse of land deals and legal battles between countries. First of all, the communities whose access to land may be affected are genuine stakeholders and should be allowed to actively participate in negotiations for the deals and any shifts in land use should be made with their prior consent.

There is a risk that the arrival of foreign investors may lead to evictions of peasants from the land they had been farming for long. This risk needs to be taken seriously and sorted out earlier. One cannot rule out a backlash against foreign investors, either firms or governments, and the fact is that they cannot remain in the host country if they don’t enjoy the trust of the local population.

Though some deals have so far taken into account some of these principles such as in Senegal, which has chosen not to sell land but to enter into partnerships. Pakistan has dramatically increased the amount of farmland it wants to sell or lease out to foreign investors to six million acres but will make it obligatory on the investors to share half of their crop with local growers.

Investment minister Waqar Ahmed Khan is convinced that crop sharing will defuse tensions with local farmers who fear being edged out by foreigners. Gulf Arab countries are interested in buying land in Pakistan.

Large-scale land acquisitions and leases became a new trend in the aftermath of 2008 global food crisis following loss of confidence in global markets by some major food importing countries as a reliable source of food for their population. During the past three years, private investors and governments have shown an irresistible desire to go for the acquisition or long-term lease of large chunks of arable land in developing countries, mostly in Africa.

According to an estimate, between 15-20 million hectares of farmland have been subject to transactions or negotiations between developing countries and foreign investors since 2006. Although this already represents the size of France’s farmland and a fifth of all the farmlands of the European Union, this figure does not take into account the most recent offer made to South African farmers to farm 10 million hectares in the Republic of Congo to grow maize, soyabeans as well as poultry and dairy farming.

The land which has been in great demand is either close to water resources which is needed for irrigation or nearer to markets from where the produce can be exported easily. Among the main target countries in SubSaharan Africa are Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.

And the other countries being wooed for the purpose are Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia or Ukraine. China is alleged to have acquired 2.8 million hectares in the Democratic Republic of Congo to create the world’s largest palm oil plantation.

There is a rush for Sub-Saharan Africa farmland because of the perception of foreigners that there is plenty of land available there, its climate is favourable to the production of crops, its labour is inexpensive and that the land there is still relatively very cheap.

Since about 95 per cent of the cropland in Asia has been utilised, it is only in Africa and Latin America where arable land in large sizes is available. And, it is in these regions that the Global Agro-ecological Assessment of FAO suggests that most of the world’s reserve agricultural land is located.

In many developing countries and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rights of landusers are not secure. Much of the land is for mally owned by the government, and the landusers have no property titles on the land they cultivate; in many cases those who cultivate the land do not own it, although they may or may not be paying rent in cash or kind or may or may not have a formal agreement with the nominal owner.

This situation is the source of legal uncertainty. It also implies that land-users will not receive adequate compensation if they are evicted by foreign investors after taking possession of land.

Hence, the large-scale investment agreements can be of benefit to parties concerned only when an appropriate institutional framework is agreed upon between them and is in place. The UN Special Rapporteur has made following recommendations for this purpose:

* The negotiations leading to investment agreements should be conducted in full transparency, and with the participation of the local communities whose access to land and other productive resources may be affected as a result of the arrival of an investor. * In principle, any shifts in land use can only take place with the free, prior and informed consent of the local communities concerned. This is particularly important for indigenous communities. In order to ensure that the rights of the local communities will be safeguarded, host states should adopt legislation for the purpose.

* Investment agreement revenues should be partly used for the benefit of the local population. Host states and investors should establish and promote farming systems that are sufficiently labour intensive and contribute to employment generation. It is essential that the obligations of the investor be defined in clear terms and enforceable, for instance by the inclusion of pre-defined sanctions in case of noncompliance.

* Investment agreements should include a clause providing that a certain minimum percentage of the crops produced shall be sold on local markets, and that this percentage may increase, in proportion to be agreed in advance, if prices of food commodities on international markets reach certain levels. Impact assessments should be conducted prior to completion of negotiations, in order to highlight the consequences of investment on the enjoyment of the right to food.

* Host states shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous people’s concerns in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands.

* Agricultural workers should be provided with adequate protection and their fundamental human and labour rights be stipulated in legislation and enforced in practice, consistent with the applicable ILO instruments.


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