How do you steer a land rush?

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.

As many observers have noted, these deals are being struck between powerful and autonomous economic actors one hand – global corporations and sovereign funds – and by internationally recognized governments on the other. In the case of governments offering ‘their ‘land, the problem of principles versus practice looms large. As blogged on previously here, many post-colonial governments continue to be only dubiously representative of their entire populations – let alone marginalized smallholder communities in the path of agro-business interests – even in cases where they are at least nominally democratic. In essence, control of a recognized state tends to legitimize self-serving deal-making by elites that may not meaningfully represent the interests of communities they are dispossessing.

Turning to the purchasers, it is clear that emerging doctrines of corporate responsibility for respecting human rights are likely to be influential but not necessarily decisive in their calculations. The March release of a new set of UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights is a positive development, for instance (see Rachel Davis’ introduction of them in Opinio Juris), but they demonstrate the difficulties of going beyond identifying the problems in such complex settings to identifying solutions. For instance, in discussing conflict-affected areas, the Principles note that:

Some of the worst human rights abuses involving business occur amid conflict over the control of territory, resources or a Government itself – where the human rights regime cannot be expected to function as intended.  Responsible businesses increasingly seek guidance from States about how to avoid contributing to human rights harm in these difficult contexts. Innovative and practical approaches are needed.

Landesa’s Darryl Vhugen confirmed this difficulty in a recent posting on last month’s World Bank conference on land and poverty. While noting the plethora of standards on land investment that have been developed to date, he points out that one of the most positive outcomes of the conference was the presence and active engagement of many representatives of the ‘bad guy’ – private investors in agricultural land. However, he also notes that the really bad guys – investors disdainful of such standards – are unlikely to ever pay much attention.

This is a theme reflected in many comments on the land rush, including Chris Huggins’ memorable posting on TN in which he explored the balance between voluntary standards and binding (but fickle) human rights litigation. In elaborating on this theme in a useful historical analysis of successive international “land regimes”, Chris notes that voluntary code of conducts can be helpful in many cases , but that blanket reliance on them would be “dangerously naive”:

Such an approach tends to ignore politics and power relations at the local scale, and obscures the relationships between the government and its citizens. Governments have strong incentives to favour policies that result in macro-economic ‘success’, as measured by orthodox economic criteria rather than local food security, social harmony, or sustainable livelihoods. Many government decision-makers have vested interests in foreign direct investment in agriculture, due to their control over land or infrastructure, or the potential for outright corruption.

In a sense, this is the human rights challenge writ large. Human rights are written by states, binding on states and enforced (largely) by states. States predisposed to respect human rights would probably get along fine without them and the states that need them most ignore them. That said, such situations can foster a modulated response by diverse actors, incorporating contextually balanced elements of persuasion, mobilization, capacity-building and, where necessary and feasible, condemnation and litigation. For instance, Landesa’s Darryl Vhugen noted multiple non-mutually exclusive “pressure points” that could be adopted in engaging with the effects of the global land rush:

… (1) host governments can more effectively negotiate with and regulate the investments.  In most cases, this will require training and institution-building; (2) the banks and other institutions who finance the acquisitions can insist on responsible behavior as a condition of the loans; and (3) the customers who buy the agricultural products grown on the land can refuse to buy unless assured that the company has acted responsibly.

As Chris Huggins has noted, the land rush is not a homogeneous problem and therefore implies a heterogeneous solution. The findings of the participants in the recent ISD conference, as well as collections of reports such as those available from Oxfam may serve to not only identify a global problem, but also support the process of generating regional and local solutions.

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4 responses to “How do you steer a land rush?

  1. Pingback: Week in links – Week 21/2011 | TerraNullius

  2. Pingback: Oxfam on the global land rush | TerraNullius

  3. Pingback: Someday, this will not be yours: the predatory state eyes ‘public’ land | TerraNullius

  4. Pingback: FAO Voluntary Guidelines on land, fisheries and forestry governance near approval | TerraNullius

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