by Rhodri C. Williams
Just a quick note to draw readers’ attention to a special report on what it will take to feed a global population of 9 billion by 2050 in this week’s Economist. Like much of the material in the Economist, the special reports are only available for a limited time, but can be downloaded in .pdf format while they last. Intriguingly, next week’s edition is slated to include a special report on ‘property’.
Turning to the current report on food security, land is discussed as a constraint on the increases in yield needed to keep up with global population growth, but is accorded less significance than other variables, notably water and fertilizer. One of the most interesting conclusions of the report is that genetic modification of both livestock and plants may facilitate a second green revolution that might for the first time allow the stabilizing population of the world to eat properly, climate change notwithstanding. One of the most worrisome conclusions is that achieving these types of technological leaps may be the only way to avoid catastrophe.
On the issue of land, the special report asserts that intensive agriculture along Brazilian lines, together with extensive use of fertilizer and genetically modified crops, will be necessary evils. The article notes that clearing of new land would be counterproductive, in part due to the cost of losing further forests, and in part because little readily arable land remains uncleared. However, the report cites World Bank findings indicating that cultivated land could be increased by one-third worldwide by bringing intensive methods to areas with fewer than 25 people per hectare currently living on them.
The World Bank is also cited as noting that up to an eighth of such ‘available’ land has already been put to cultivation by foreign investors in only three years since the ‘global land rush’ phenomenon began in earnest. While this is taken as evidence that the remaining seven eights can quickly be put to the service of a hungry world, it also raises some questions that are not fully addressed in the report. One of the foremost relates to the fate of the twenty five or fewer people currently occupying each of the half-billion hectares in question.
From a development perspective, it is now widely accepted that persons ‘affected’ by projects, presumably including agricultural intensification, should benefit along with broader society (or at least not suffer deterioration in their living standard as a result). While experiences vary across ‘land rush’ scenarios, there are concerns that traditional occupiers of affected land are often simply ignored, in keeping with a tendency in many post-colonial countries to assume that land not held in formal title is at the free disposal of the state. There is, in all of this, an eerie echo of the ‘terra nullius’ doctrine applied by colonial powers to treat land not cultivated in readily familiar European patterns as free for the taking.
From a rights perspective, this is a problematic state of affairs. Although I have argued that rights-based and development resettlement standards have converged significantly, recent experiences in developing countries such as Cambodia have raised questions about the extent to which such standards are rigorously applied. As reflected in last year’s TN posting by Chris Huggins, the role of rights discourse in the response to the global land rush remains contested. While human rights rulings in favor of indigenous land rights such as that in the Endorois case last year represent legal benchmarks, their ability to stem the current tide of international land transactions is questionable.
It is nevertheless clear that understanding the role of informal rights to land resources has been accepted as an important element of development and rule of law work. To quote the World Banks ‘Justice for the Poor‘ program:
…given that reform processes are often about ‘changing the rules’ or the distribution of resources, they are also inherently conflict ridden. Experience suggests that where development initiatives have built-in mechanisms for managing disputes, they can improve the effectiveness of projects and reduce the likelihood of conflict arising. Such mechanisms address the legal or justice-related elements of the development process by providing outlets for and tools to communities to resolve disputes which impact on access to resources and, by extension, standard of living.
All of which makes me all the more curious about what exactly the Economist is going to have to say about ‘property’ next week. I hope other TN readers, and particularly those sharing their their hectare of the world’s real estate with 24 or fewer neighbors will be reading along with me.