Joint action needed to address land grabbing

Commentary, 01 December 2011

By Marina d’Engelbronner-Kolff

Land is central to people’s identity, livelihood and food security.

For the past decade, foreign investors have been looking for greener pastures in Africa. Some foreign governments and private enterprises acquire long-term leases of large portions of arable land as part of efforts to secure sufficient food and energy for their home populations. Such actions could be explained in human rights terms. This is not the case, however, if foreign governments are acquiring land only with a view to trade in international markets.

Whatever their reasons, the bottom line is that investing countries and companies must not undermine realization of the right to food for people in countries in which they invest. But the reality today is that land deals in many countries are in fact having severely negative human rights impacts with states often siding with business, eroding human rights of the people who are often vulnerable or marginalized.

As an example, the Government of Ethiopia aims to transfer vast blocks of fertile land in the South Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia to foreign and national commercial investors. According to the Oakland Institute, this land is marketed by the federal government as ‘irrigable’ and ideal for producing crops such as sugarcane, cotton soybean and palm oil. This concerns at least 180,000 hectares of land and might be even more as this number does not include land already awarded to investors and investments of less than 5,000 ha that may be awarded by the regional government in the future. Indigenous people and local communities, often pastoralists, face eviction from the land.

A recent report from Oxfam International stresses that the scale of the rush by speculators, pension funds and global agri-businesses to acquire large areas of developing countries is far greater than previously thought, and is already leading to conflict, hunger and human rights abuses. According to preliminary research data of the Land Matrix Partnership, 227 million hectares of land have been leased, sold, licensed or are under negotiation since 2001, mostly to international investors. The growth of the world population, urbanization, exhaustion of natural resources and rising food prices, together with an increased demand for the production of biofuels have all stimulated a rush for investment in countries where arable land is widely available and labor is cheap.

As a human rights advisor, conducting due diligence assessments of large infrastructure and agro-forestry projects in Africa, I must emphasize that large-scale land transactions, if undertaken with proper due diligence, could create opportunities for lesser developed countries. Such investments could improve the local infrastructure and economy, ensure the transfer of technology, and provide long-term employment. Nevertheless, I often come across unfair land acquisition, involuntary resettlement and environmental damage as a result of such agreements. This is especially so in Sub-Saharan Africa countries, where the rights of land users and inhabitants who own land according to customary legal systems, are not well secured. Land deals are negotiated in an environment of unequal power relations. Smallholders and local communities often lose out when negotiating with powerful international investors, and national governments often side with investors, and not the local population.

A range of voluntary international standards seeks to address concerns relating to the acquisition and use of land by private enterprises. For example, the IFC Performance Standards on Social and Environmental Sustainability are commonly used by international and national development banks and funds investing in land. In September 2011, a group of institutional investors launched the Principles for Responsible Investment in Farmland, and the Committee on World Food Security is currently developing its own guidelines for the responsible governance of the tenure of land, forests and fisheries. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation is also developing guidelines for land tenure.

Specialized standards such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RTB) also provide a framework for the acquisition, lease and cultivation of land. The Institute for Human Rights and Business is also preparing its own business guidelines for a human rights approach to land acquisition and land use.

However, in my work I see that the operationalisation of these principles poses enormous challenges. This is particularly so in countries which do not have the legal structures, the necessary mechanisms and the human capacity to implement and enforce such principles.

In order to ensure sustainable land use and non-abusive land acquisition, joint action is urgently required. As the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights emphasize, states have a duty to protect against human rights abuse by third parties including business, while companies have a responsibility to respect human rights.

Host states have to ensure consideration of alternative models of land management, which are socially inclusive and non-discriminatory, and that land deals are negotiated in a proper and transparent manner. They should also make available appropriate procedures for land registration, community engagement, compensation and mechanisms to redress land disputes.

On their side, investors and private enterprises should carry out adequate due diligence, also when land is made available by the host country government. This includes conducting an early and independent impact assessment, even when the law of the host country does not require doing so. The aim is to highlight the consequences of the investment on smallholders, surrounding communities and indigenous people, including vulnerable groups such as women and the elderly. Such an assessment should contain a strong participatory dimension and be followed by adequate management plans, which minimize and mitigate adverse impacts and optimize benefits for local people. Free, prior and informed consultation and consent as well as adequate compensation and restoration of livelihoods are key components. The Institute for Human Rights and Business draft guidelines, which are now available for consultation and will be tested during the first half of 2012, clarify these standards.

Such joint action combined with international pressure from civil society organizations, the media and investors’ home country governments will contribute to controlling current practices in land grabbing which undermine respect for human rights. Only then will sustainable development in line with international human rights standards be possible.

Latest IHRB Publications

Rights and Wrongs - Questioning Free Expression in the Workplace

How can companies negotiate their way around deeply divisive political issues where their employees, contractors, suppliers, and associates may have strong convictions and opinions? Can companies keep politics out of their offices? Can they restrain...

17 September 2019

Commentary by Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

The Start of Modern Corporate Accountability Efforts - In Memory of Joel Filártiga

It is an unfortunate reality that when human rights defenders speak against their governments, they place themselves at risk of harm. Still, some choose to speak, and in doing so they change the course of history.

Dr Joel Filártiga was one such...

25 July 2019

Human Rights and the Built Environment - A Call for Action

Two-thirds of humanity are projected to live in urban areas by 2050. If we are to make progress in reducing global inequality and in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a rights-based approach to the built environment is critical.