Enclosure of Commons goes offshore

Global financial, environmental, energy and food crises in recent years has fueled a dramatic rush on farmland and resources in much of the Global South, and in the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. One recent database shows 416, large-scale land grabs by foreign investors for the production of food crops. This collection of cases cover nearly 35 million hectares of land in 66 countries. | More…

Where does Land Grabbing take place?

Africa is particularly targeted by land grabbers, as land there is cheap. But it also occurs in Asia, Latin America and former Eastern bloc countries, such as Romania, the Ukraine and the Russian Federation. More importantly, most land grabbing takes place in countries classified by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural organization (FAO) as vulnerable to food insecurity. These countries include Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Mali, Sudan, Uganda, Cambodia and Myanmar. Farming in these countries is often based on smallholder agriculture. Land grabbing is made easier by the fact that small farmers, nomads and indigenous groups generally own no official titles to their land. Their customary rights for collective land use and ownership are simply ignored.

What are the Causes?

It is against the background of a continuously increasing world population – expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 – and the constraints of climate change that land and other natural resources are coming into the focus of economic interests. As a result of the global food price crisis in 2008, states that depend on food imports started buying or leasing large tracts of agricultural land in other countries in order to cultivate food crops for their own needs at home. In addition, the demand for agrofuels remains artificially high due to climate protection regulations such as EU biofuel targets. This lucrative business not only encourages land grabbing but also jeopardises world food security. The global financial crisis is another driving force behind land grabbing. Agricultural investments are viewed as secure investment opportunities promising large profits. All these factors are increasing the pressure on the world’s natural commons. The answer to this comes in the shape of neo-liberal economic policies, privatisation and international investment treaties, which accelerate land grabbing by turning land into a commodity that can be traded globally.

The Key Players

Although the key players in land grabbing are as diverse as the driving forces behind it, four main groups can be distinguished: corporations, private investment funds (banks, pension and hedge funds), sovereign wealth funds and financial institutions (development funds, development banks and agencies, the World Bank) and national governments. The first group mainly invests in farmland for the extraction of resources and its related infrastructure. Agribusiness corporations, for instance, secure with such investments the entire chain of production and trade in food crops, energy crops such as sugar cane, corn, palm oil, jatropha or animal fodder such as soya. This group buys up or secures the rights to the largest total amount of land. however, the second group, private investment funds, is also increasingly acquiring agricultural land in poor countries. The third group provides the investment for so-called development projects, and private companies then take over the production. The fourth and smallest group is made up of governments which negotiate leasing contracts directly with other countries. Corrupt governments and weak institutions in the host countries facilitate foreign land acquisitions, and domestic elites or companies also profit from these deals.

The Arguments

Transnational land acquisitions are justified and packaged in numerous ways to make them attractive to the host country and the affected population. It is claimed that the investments will bring technology transfer and employment opportunities, or that they will boost the local or national economy and increase food security while caring for the environment and local resource management. Consequently, people believe that the land deals and development projects will lead to permanent improvements in their lives. Unfortunately, these hopes rarely materialise.
Land grabbers also frequently claim that ‘idle’ or ‘marginal’ land is now finally being cultivated. However, areas often mistakenly described as ‘empty’ or ‘unproductive’ are extensively used by nomads and farmers, or serving as community land. Women gathering food, wood and medical plants are especially affected. Yet, land grabbers mainly target the best agricultural lands, as they want their investments to be profitable.

The Consequences

Land grabbing has an enormous social, economic and ecological impact in the target countries. Large-scale cultivation replaces and marginalises small farmers and destroys their means of survival. Land grabbing endangers land rights, traditional pasturing rights, water rights and other access rights. These rights provide the basis for the survival of most rural families and even entire societies. The consequences are migration or forced displacement, but also resistance and severe conflicts about land, water and forests. Furthermore, the environmental harm caused by increased water consumption, forest clearance, extensive monocultures and the intensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers associated with land grabbing is unpredictable.

Land grabbing and Human Rights violations

Article 1 of the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that, ‘In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.’ Land, water, forests and seeds are the rural population’s basic means of subsistence in developing countries and the basis of national food security. Case studies show that land grabbing violates and endangers people’s right to food and water and undermines their capacity to construct a decent livelihood. Governments have to ensure that these rights are not put at risk by land deals. The rights of indigenous peoples are also at stake as land grabbing is increasingly occurring in their territories. According to ILO Convention 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, any measure affecting the enjoyment of their ancestral lands and territories needs the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and should be made respecting the rights of other rural communities to participate in decision-making. human rights, especially the right to food and water and the right of indigenous peoples to their territories, must be given priority over economic interests and over trade and investment agreements that lead to land grabs.


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Published by ActionAid, May 27, 2015
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