by Rhodri C. Williams
I’m not sure who comes out looking worse on this one, BBC or me. On BBC’s ledger sheet, I was intrigued to see a headline to the effect that the “UN adopts historic ‘land grab’ guidelines” – and even more intrigued to click on it and find no links, nor the barest reference to the sponsoring UN agency, the name of the guidelines or any other clear hints as to how I might set about reverse engineering my way to the actual text the article was about.
Lets stop for a second and consider what this says about how the UN is perceived. Would the BBC note the passage of an important policy in the US without once naming the responsible government ministry, the actual name of the policy or the URL where you could find the text? It must be distressing for UN employees to find their sprawling, diverse, and often bitterly divided institution still so easily written off as a monolith.
For my own part, I eventually managed to use the one direct quote in the BBC piece to find my way to a much more journalistically impressive effort by the Miami Herald. Which helped me to the realization that I had lost track of the process of adoption of the FAO’s new ‘Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security’, despite having blogged on them only a month ago.
In my own defense, I had reasonable grounds for confusion. Most of the buzz generated by the guidelines so far seems to come from their association with addressing the current phenomenon of large scale investments in land (more colloquially referred to as large scale land-grabbing). For instance, the BBC describes them flat out as “guidelines for rich countries buying land in developing nations”.
However, the FAO itself announces the guidelines in a much more nuanced manner that conforms to my own earlier understanding: although much of the “public debate has focused on the so-called ‘land-grabbing’ phenomenon,” this is only “one of the issues that are dealt with in these guidelines.” The press release notes that the new text “address a wide range of other issues” as well, many of them far more “entrenched” than land-grabbing.
In fact, the current guidelines appear to focus on the ‘supply side’ – what states experiencing outside investment can do to mitigate the conditions that leave their own populations exposed to its worst effects. Recommended measures such as recognition of customary rights, dispute resolution measures and managing urbanization are clearly directed toward the local authorities, and meant to confront destructive state practices such as the ongoing tendency to exploit post-colonial legacies in the form of ‘state land‘.
Meanwhile, behind all the noise (land grabbing sells, it seems), the FAO affirms that the separate and parallel process of developing guidelines for the ‘demand-side’ actors actually doing the investing in land remains on course:
For its part, the [FAO Committee on World Food Security] will next take a focused look at the issue of responsible agricultural investments in general. The body is currently planning a yearlong consultative process, to start in October, that could culminate in set of recommended principles for responsible investment in agriculture later in 2013.
In implementing the new guidelines, the FAO is banking on buy-in achieved in what was, by all accounts, an exemplary consultative process. It has also planned to engage in technical assistance and develop a series of technical handbooks designed to help countries adapt the guidelines to their local contexts. So more information – presumably along with a dose of confusion – to come.