Tag Archives: land-grabbing

Land grabs jeopardize peace in Sri Lanka

by Christina Williams

Christina Williams is an attorney and founder of Reinventing the Rules, a website dedicated to covering the latest trends and lessons learned in the rule of law sector. She has worked on human rights campaigns related to Sri Lanka for several years and is currently focusing on women and land rights in the region.

The end of the 25-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009 signaled what many in the international community hoped would be the beginning of a new era marked by peace and reconciliation. Over the past five years, however, one of the key instigators of the civil war has resurfaced. Land grabs, which were systematically taking place prior to the armed conflict, are once again accelerating at a frightening pace. Shielded by the rhetoric of security and development, the rise of land grabs has left few positive prospects for long-term peace and stability.

Who is behind the land grabs?

The Sri Lankan military, sanctioned by the Government, has played a primary role in confiscating public and private land from the Tamil population, which predominantly inhabits the North and East of the island. Despite the end of the war, militarization of Tamil areas has been the main reason land grabs continue unabated.

In 2008, during the latter stages of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka reportedly had a force of 60 soldiers for every 1,000 civilians or 1 soldier for every 16.6 civilians in the North. In July 2012, the Economic and Political Weekly of India estimated that there is a “ratio of 1 security personnel for every 5.04 civilians in the Northern Province.” The military, which is almost entirely composed of ethnic Sinhalese from the South, includes at least 15 army divisions and personnel from the navy, air force, civil defense force, intelligence, police, and special task force. This conservative estimate roughly translates into 198,000 soldiers or 70% of the security personnel in 14% of the country. View a map of militarization in Sri Lanka here.

The trend towards militarization has only increased with Sri Lanka’s defense budget for 2014 reported to be the highest allocation of funds thus far, at $1.95 billion or 12% of the country’s total spending.  The rate at which militarization grows in Tamil areas five years after the war ended is a concerning trend given the significance land played as one of the root causes of the war. Land will likely continue to play an important role in determining whether peace and a return to normalcy can be achieved.

Tactics used to seize land

The seizure of land marked as high security zones (HSZ) during the conflict and the unwillingness to return much of this property to the thousands who were displaced has contributed to the slow return to normalcy in the former war zones. While some of the HSZ have been disbanded, existing HSZs still occupy significant amounts of valuable agricultural land and no one other than the army is allowed to enter, including elected officials. During the war the legality of the HSZs rested on emergency regulations, which have now been repealed. Five years after the end of conflict, there is no clear legal basis for the remaining HSZ.

Since the armed conflict ended, the military has continued to confiscate public and private land largely under the pretext of security. While many military camps have been created for the army and navy, the government has also resettled thousands of Sinhalese soldiers and civilians from the South in Tamil areas by incentivizing them with free land and permanent housing. This is occurring while 57% out of 138,651 households already residing in the North remain in transitional or emergency shelters while only 32% have permanent homes. Consequently, land grabs are reigniting fears of a concerted effort by the government to change the demographics of Tamil areas in the North and East.  Continue reading

Risk calculation and blood sugar – Can CSR arguments get a handle on the global land-rush?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The nearly 18 months that have passed since David Pred wrote in this blog about industrial sugarcane production and land-grabbing in Cambodia have been dramatic ones in the area of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Perhaps most notably, the tragic and entirely predictable collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh last May galvanized a process of negotiating binding arbitration agreements between corporations and labor unions with participation by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The resulting “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh” was described by Peter Spiro in Opinio Juris as “a signal episode in the continuing evolution of global corporate regulation”:

The template: a legal agreement between non-state parties facilitated and nominally hosted by an international organization. No governments involved, at least not as parties to the agreement. If it works, look for more of the same in other contexts. The ILO ‘s profile will surely rise in the face of this episode and the growing global awareness of worker rights issues.

For better and for worse, the Rana Plaza disaster also generated competing models, with a group of North American retailers unveiling a non-legally binding alternative to the mainly European ‘Accord’ in July. While critics alleged that the latter plan amounted to an attempt by large corporations such as Walmart to co-opt the global CSR movement, US corporations condemned the Accord as rigid, insensitive to the realities of the global textiles market, and (perhaps most tellingly), a potential floodgate for litigation.

These developments indicate that the protracted debate over effective social regulation of global markets (beautifully summarised in this essay by Richard M. Locke) has lurched forward, but is far from over. While experts have raised technical concerns about the arbitration procedures espoused in the Accord, it has nevertheless clearly introduced a new paradigm, planting a new, binding standard in a field dominated by voluntary codes of conduct. However, the competing North American initiative demonstrates the persistence of non-binding commitments that rely on states to regulate the conditions of production, rather than giving workers recourse to the corporations that sit astride global production chains.

Meanwhile, the debate over large-scale acquisition of land in developing countries by foreign states and corporations – the ‘global land rush’ – has rumbled on. In particular light of the extent to which corporations have been actors in the land rush, early indications that the land tenure governance debate would converge with the broader CSR debate appear to have been more than borne out.

Most notably, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently adopted a well-received set of “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure“. Though these are frequently referred to generically as ‘land grab guidelines’, they actually focus on the ‘supply side’, setting out duties of care for the authorities that dispose over land subject to investment (for more on the Guidelines, see this dedicated edition of the Land Tenure Journal). Meanwhile, a corresponding set of ‘demand side’ due diligence guidelines for investors – the “Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investments” is currently slated for adoption in 2014.

A similar pattern has emerged in advocacy with, for instance, the Rights and Resource Initiative (RRI) recently having reframed the ‘supply side’ question of State neglect of local tenure rights as a ‘demand side’ problem of corporate risk:

In examining the evidence, a pattern emerges. Many investors and operators have committed time, money and effort without understanding some considerable risks, ones usually considered externalities in the normal course of business. …. Property rights in many emerging markets are dysfunctional to the point that ownership of land can be granted to an investor without the tens of thousands of people living on, or dependent on, that land knowing about it. …. By themselves, delays caused by land tenure problems can inflate a project’s expenditures by an order of magnitude – and in some cases these losses have even been great enough to endanger the future of the corporate parent itself.

Meanwhile, more concerted efforts are being put into gauging the genuine scale of the problem, most notably through the development of a Land Matrix, a public online database of land deals. However, getting a handle on the scale of the problem, with its often murky and frequently unreported (or reported but unconsumnated) deals remains difficult. Nevertheless, two recent and overlapping insights have involved the extent to which the land rush has penetrated – and destabilized – South-East Asia and the role of the sugar industry and sugarcane in driving large scale land investment.

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Forced urbanization in China moves from practice to policy

by Rhodri C. Williams

No half-measures to be taken in China’s peaceful rise, it seems. An astonishing New York Times piece recently reviewed the implications of a policy still not finally approved in Beijing but apparently in full swing in the provinces – according to which (wait for it) 250 million people will be forcibly urbanized over the next 12-15 years. That is more than the population of Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world. If the policy succeeds, the world’s most populous country will have gone from being 80% rural in the early 1980s to 70% urban two generations later.

The scope of the project is almost unfathomable (enjoy the NYT video, in which nighttime images of scores of the world’s biggest cities are overflown before a 250 million headcount is racked up). As is the potential for rights violations, accretion of social ills and mayhem that could result. One observer is quoted as stating that this is program is neither less ambitious nor less risky than the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. So why bother?

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Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: A new global standard for land administration

by Douglas Batson

Douglas Batson joined the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) as a political geographer in 2004. He previously worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Department of Justice, and is now retired from the U.S. Army Reserve. Batson wrote on “Snow Leopards and Cadastres: Rare Sightings in Post-conflict Afghanistan” in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, and provides an update in this guest-posting.

My chapter in Part 3 of Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding begins with an overview of the challenges faced by U.S. and coalition forces in rebuilding Afghanistan during the 2000s, and specifically the need for a cadastral system that records the array of relationships between people and land. It also discusses the problems of refugee resettlement in the context of the post-war population explosion and the environmental destruction from decades of conflict. The discussion of secure tenure to land describes local initiatives including dispute resolution and management of land resources. It concludes by underscoring the potential of the Land Administration Domain Model (LADM) to record heretofore undocumentable, orally defined forms of customary land tenure.

Shortly after the completion of my chapter, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) took up the LADM as a draft standard. I had the opportunity to advocate full adoption of the LADM as an ISO standard to the U.S. Federal Geographic Data Committee. This effort included addressing concerns about the cost of conforming 3,100 disparate U.S. county-level Land Administration Systems (LAS) to a new global standard. The LADM’s value, I argued, lies less in its utility for the U.S. homeland, than in its relevance for U.S. security, diplomacy, and development goals, in a context in which 75% of the world’s people-to-land relationships, or 4.5 billion cases worldwide, are not documented. This situation clearly invites land disputes, land grabbing, and violent conflict.

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Safeguarding land rights: An opportunity for the World Bank to lead

by David Pred and Natalie Bugalski

Washington, April 13, 2013 - At the start of the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty this week, World Bank President Dr. Jim Kim made some welcome remarks about the global land rights crisis.   He did not respond directly to the withering criticism of the role the Bank has played in promoting land grabs.   But he did say that the Bank shares the concerns about the risks of large-scale land acquisitions, and importantly he acknowledged that “additional efforts must be made to build capacity and safeguards related to land rights and to empower civil society to hold governments accountable.”

What caught people at the Conference pleasantly off guard was the Bank’s statement that its own social and environmental safeguard policies, now under review, would be informed by the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Forest and Fisheries.

Inclusive Development International and Oxfam put forward a concrete proposal at the Conference for the Bank to do just that.  We presented a proposal for a new World Bank safeguard policy on tenure of land, housing and natural resources that draws extensively from the Voluntary Guidelines.

The proposal addresses major gaps in the Bank’s current policy framework that have left people affected by Bank operations unprotected from harmful impacts on their tenure rights.  If adopted, these policy measures would ensure that the Bank upholds its responsibility to respect human rights by safeguarding against the weakening of tenure rights, the instigation of land conflict and the exacerbation of inequality in access to land and natural resources by Bank operations.

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Defining communities in Colombia: the Afro-descendant communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó and communal land rights

by Anouska Perram

Anouska Perram is a Supervising Associate at the London office of Simmons & Simmons LLP, an international law firm. At the request of an international NGO for whom it acts on a pro bono basis, Simmons & Simmons LLP has recently submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Colombian Constitutional Court in relation to international human rights law considerations pertaining to the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities’ case.

Once seen as antipathetic to the individual rights focus of international human rights law, “third generation” and collective rights have – despite lingering controversy – been widely accepted as a fundamental element of the indivisible human rights framework.[1] Driven in particular by the demands of indigenous peoples, national and international law has recognised and protected rights to communal land titles, rights to language, religious practices, specialised education and protection of cultural heritage, and many other rights which are associated with the existence of distinct socio-cultural groups within the boundaries of the wider state.

As they have developed, collective rights have increasingly been applied to groups beyond indigenous peoples. ILO Convention 169 (the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention) extends protections not only to indigenous peoples (described as peoples descended from a pre-colonial society) but also – the clue is in the name – to “tribal peoples”. Unlike the description of indigenous peoples in the Convention, tribal peoples need not be linked by common descent, but rather are characterised by “social, cultural and economic conditions” which “distinguish them from other sections of the national community”.[2]

Taking a similarly expansive approach, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) has applied collective rights principles to Afro-descendant groups. The Court applies its jurisprudence on indigenous land rights equally to Afro-descendant groups where they have “an ‘all-encompassing relationship’ to their traditional lands, and [where] their concept of ownership regarding that territory is not centered on the individual, but rather on the community as whole”.[3]

The expanding scope of collective rights entails a shift in emphasis in the way these rights are justified. Indigenous rights advocacy has often focused on a claim to right derived from chronological precedence – ancestral descent since time immemorial – perhaps paralleling an orthodox property rights analysis which takes an earlier claim as a better claim. The expansion of rights to other groups such as Afro-descendants – who do not have the same claims to ancestral ownership – moves the focus towards the uniqueness of social and cultural characteristics of the group. In this way, as collective rights have developed juridically, the principle of a distinct social organisation, intrinsically worthy of and requiring protection as a collective has become central to the analysis.

This question brings to the forefront the issue of how to define membership of the “collective” entitled to “collective rights”. Logically the entitlement to protection should follow the contours of the social organisation being protected; how to determine those boundaries in each situation is, however, not necessarily straightforward. This is not actually of course a new question – it arises equally for indigenous peoples – but has perhaps been more readily glossed over in relation to indigenous peoples, in reliance upon the (mythically) objective element of “descent” to determine the boundaries of the group.[4] No such “objective” identifier applies to non-indigenous groups and so the question of how to define the group cannot be avoided.

Lawmakers will remain tempted to adopt an “objective” criterion of descent, which gives an appearance of certainty and also places finite limits on a group. Such an approach, however, has the potential to decouple collective rights from parts of the collectivity being protected. This is the very issue currently before the Colombian Constitutional Court in relation to the Afro-descendant communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó.

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The World Bank must stop underwriting human rights abuses in Ethiopia

by David Pred and Natalie Bugalski

A leaked World Bank report calls for an investigation into allegations that a multi-billion dollar aid program in Ethiopia is underwriting the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities to free up fertile land to lease to investors. A meeting of the Bank’s board of directors to discuss the Panel’s preliminary findings was postponed on Tuesday due to objections from the Ethiopian government. Rights groups are watching closely to see how the new Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, will deal with sensitive questions about World Bank accountability and human rights in one of its most important client states.

Anuak indigenous refugees from Gambella region who fled human rights abuses in Ethiopia submitted a complaint to the Bank’s Inspection Panel in September claiming that they had been severely harmed by the flagship international aid program for the provision of basic services in Ethiopia, which is administered and partially financed by the World Bank.

Landlocked in the Horn of Africa and beset by periodic droughts and famine, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world.  International relief and food assistance is still needed to feed between 10 and 20 percent of its roughly 85 million people.[1] Many Ethiopians, particularly rural dwellers, lack access to basic services, including water, sanitation and basic health facilities.

Since the ousting of the Soviet-backed “Derg” military regime in 1991, the Government of Ethiopia, led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has implemented a vast program of economic recovery and reform meant to address the dire poverty and enormous social and economic needs of the population.

The government and its development partners claim impressive strides towards meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and significant progress in key human development indicators over the past two decades, including a quadrupling in primary school enrollments, halving of child mortality, and a doubling of the number of people with access to clean water.[2]

Yet, in parallel to its economic reform agenda the government has become increasingly oppressive and intolerant of criticism and dissent.  As Human Rights Watch has reported, the government has “severely restricted the rights of expression and association, arbitrarily detained political opponents, intimidated journalists, shuttered media outlets, and made independent human rights and election monitoring practically impossible.”[3]

These human rights abuses are rarely openly acknowledged by the bilateral and multilateral donors to Ethiopia.  Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid, receiving approximately US$3 billion in funds annually from external donors, including the World Bank, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Commission, Germany and the Netherlands.[4]

Largely turning a blind eye to the increasingly repressive political climate, donors justify their support by both the enormity of the need and the reported inroads achieved in reducing poverty since the EPRDF came to power.[5] Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi forged close alliances with Western nations based on a common interest in combatting Islamic extremism and establishing greater stability in the volatile region.[6]

Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, the World Bank and other donors supported the Ethiopian Government by providing direct budget support through a series of Structural Adjustment Credits and Poverty Reduction Support Operations, in addition to several specific purpose projects. In 2004/05 direct budget support from all donors constituted approximately one third of total aid to Ethiopia,[7] placing significant aid amounts directly in government hands with minimal control and oversight, despite evidence of egregious human rights abuses being perpetrated by the government and military.[8]

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