by Rhodri C. Williams
In its most recent edition, the international section of the Economist leads with a thought-provoking summary of the latest wisdom on the ‘global land rush’, or the phenomenon by which large chunks of arable land in developing countries are acquired by foreign commercial and government interests seeking to produce food for international markets or their own (often distant) populations.
In the not so distant past, debates over whether the spread of such practices represented a development opportunity or a neo-colonialist relapse tended to be based as much on conviction as evidence. However, two years later, the Economist cites the results of a recent conference at the University of Sussex Institute of Development Studies (ISD) in delivering its verdict: more grab than rush. While the pendulum of expert opinion appears to have shifted decisively against this practice, however, execution of the sentence will undoubtedly be the hard part.
Even as large scale land acquisition has metastasized in many regions of the world, the unequal bargaining power and dubious motivations of the parties to such arrangements have tended to negate the benefits, in terms of jobs, technology transfer, infrastructure investments and tax revenues, which they were meant to entail. Indeed, in many cases, these elements remain shrouded in mystery along with all other details of the un-transparent contracts and concessions involved. The Economist notes that recent land acquisitions have stood out from ordinary development-related graft in light of “their combination of high levels of corruption with low levels of benefit.”
So what to do? One reasonable criticism of the Economist’s valuable survey of the terrain is its lack of prescription – or even speculation – on what type of measures might be taken to address these concerns. Given that the Economist tends to be thorough to a fault (as witnessed by the Onion’s memorable suggestion that it should take a month off so readers can catch up), this omission seem surprising. On the other hand, the coming challenge of influencing this process is likely to be much harder than the current challenge of judging it.
by Deborah Espinosa
This guest post was originally posted on Landesa’s Field Focus blog, which provides expert insight on the issues surrounding land rights and international development. Deborah Espinosa is a senior attorney and land tenure specialist.
She was one of at least 40 landless women who demanded to meet with us that day. They had heard that we would be visiting their village to talk with women in self-help groups (SHG) who had participated in the Indira Kranthi Patham (IKP) Land Purchase Program, one of several programs that the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh was implementing. She was determined that we hear her message. That day was one of the more difficult days of my career as a lawyer advocating for land rights for the world’s poorest.
The AP Land Purchase Program, which Landesa and RDI-India helped the State design, assisted landless women in organizing to negotiate with large landowners and purchase and subdivide agricultural land for themselves and their families. From 2004 to 2009, 5,303 women paid US $604,418 (just over $100 each) to purchase 4,539 acres of farmland. The women paid a total of 25% of the purchase price, 15% of which they borrowed. The government subsidized the remaining amount. For weeks, our team had been traveling throughout the state, talking with formerly landless women whose lives had been transformed through the program. Most of the women had owned the land for about four years, with titles to their land in their name alone. State law permits only one name on the patta, or title, and the State required that the patta had to be in the name of the wife (if married) or a female head of household.
The women whom we interviewed reported significant benefits associated with shedding the “landless” cloak and becoming a full-fledged landowner. They reported increased income and the ability to start saving, improvement in their family’s health due to having more food to consume and higher quality food, and the ability to access credit from banks and village moneylenders. They also perceived an improvement in their family’s status within the community as evidenced by having better marriage opportunities for their children. Although the women reported that there still was room for improvement on all fronts, for them, becoming a landowner had profound effects on their family’s welfare.