Millions Made Insecure by Land Grabbing

In 2007, a combination of rising energy costs, population growth, and the increasing use of crops for biofuel production triggered a sharp spike in food prices around the world. In developing countries, the cost of importing food rose by 25 percent, resulting in riots, export bans, and black markets as the average family was forced to spend between 50 and 75 percent of its household income on food expenses. But the implications for some communities were even broader.

The Ethiopian highlands have been particular targets of transnational land exchanges, or "land grabs." (Photo credit: ILRI)

As food prices soared and countries felt increasing pressure, compelling governments to buy or lease large swaths of land for agricultural purposes, a practice known as “land grabbing.” The term land grabbing is problematic due to vast differences in land sales and leases, land grabbing has come to encompass the increasingly prevalent, and often criticized, act of large-scale national or transnational land exchanges.

Land grabbing occurs primarily in developing countries that include Indonesia and many in sub-Saharan Africa. The Malian government, for example, has “signed over 470,000 hectares to foreign companies, from Libya, China, the UK, Saudi Arabia and other countries in recent years, virtually all of it in the Niger Basin.” Though the government has signed over 470,000 hectares, experts estimate that Mali only has the water resources to irrigate 250,000 hectares.

One of the main controversies about land grabbing is whether it ultimately helps to improve global food security and energy production, or whether it simply reflects economic greed and results in displacement and job loss in local populations.

In the context of energy production, the drive for biofuels has caused large firms to buy up land from poor villagers in Africa, often with devastating consequences. More than 30 biofuel projects have been initiated and subsequently abandoned across the continent, leaving the villagers, who were promised jobs and village improvements, unemployed and landless. There are reports of incomplete and missing land payments, dangerous working environments, and a general lack of transparency.

On a broad scale, land grabbing can be seen as a shift in security: countries that are food or energy insecure are able to buy or lease large swaths of productive land in order to grow and harvest land at a cheaper cost. Meanwhile, the local populations that sell or rent the land often lose their livelihoods and security. Additionally, many land grabs are not sales but rather leases that will eventually expire, leaving local populations with degraded soils, exploited aquifers, and diminished income.

Although reliable information on land grabs is scarce, estimates suggest that in the past several years, more than 80 million hectares have been sold or leased in large-scale deals. 

Certainly, food-insecure nations will need find novel ways to provide enough food for their populations; however, small-scale rural farmers must be protected from powerful buyers, such as governments, and be given more power in the negotiation process to mitigate the negative consequences of land grabs.

Although reliable information on land grabs is scarce, estimates suggest that in the past several years, more than 80 million hectares have been sold or leased in large-scale deals. To protect vulnerable local populations, a stable regulatory framework needs to be implemented and land deals should be done with greater transparency.

Although regulation is lacking at the global level, the challenges associated with land grabs are gaining visibility. The United Nations recently adopted international guidelines with the goal of “improving secure access to land, fisheries and forests and protecting the rights of millions of often very poor people.” The guidelines call for transparency, consultations with local populations, protection of indigenous land rights, and fair and prompt compensation.

The adoption of these voluntary guidelines is an important first step. To effectively protect local populations, implementation and accountability must quickly follow.

Alison Singer | Sustainable Prosperity | August 03, 2012

Homepage image: Critics of land grabs point to the local populations that have been driven off the land they inhabit and farm. (Photo credit: ILRI)

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