Oxfam on the global land rush – UPDATED

by Rhodri C. Williams

Update – One of the disadvantages of speed-blogging is that you sometimes post on new reports without remembering to link to them! (See also the PR here). I should also highlight the appended case-study on evictions in Uganda carried out in furtherance of a carbon credit program run by the UK-based New Forests Company. This item has received considerable media attention on its own merits (as here in the New York Times and here in the Guardian). The latter piece includes a quote from an NFC spokesman that shows just how easy it remains for many African states to bank on the inherited colonial legal fiction that land not held in formal title is the exclusive property of the state (previously discussed on TN here, at bottom): 

In a series of communications with Oxfam, the company says: “Evictions from government land – which go on in Uganda every day – are solely in the hands of the government and its designated authorities such as the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the National Forestry Authority, and the Ministry of Lands. We are expressly prohibited from dialogue and interaction from any illegal encroachers.”

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Recent statements by Oxfam have strengthened the emerging consensus that large scale investment in developing countries’ land is both destructive of local livelihoods and a source of corruption and political instability. Oxfam itself has been a longstanding critic of this trend, as reflected in a brilliant little satire they produced on Glengarry Glenross. So what do their most recent statements add to the litany of international criticism?

First, as picked up on in the Guardian, Oxfam has alleged that the scope of the phenomenon to date may be significantly larger than previously thought:

The NGO has identified 227m ha (561m acre ha) of land – an area the size of north-west Europe – as having being reportedly sold, leased or licensed, largely in Africa and mostly to international investors in thousands of secretive deals since 2001. This compares withabout 56m ha identified by the World Bank earlier this year, again predominantly in Africa.

Second, as reported by the BBC, Oxfam has maintained its focus on the connection between the land rush and other global trends, inferring that the trend is likely to grow both more pronounced and more overtly problematic.

The organisation said that land grabs had accelerated especially since 2008, when soaring prices highlighted the issue of food security.

It said an increasing demand for food, combined with climate change and the increase of agricultural land being used to grow biofuels, meant that the number of such deals would be likely to only rise in the future.

It called on the EU to scrap its target of obtaining 10% transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020 – which has fuelled the planting of crops for biofuels – and asked investors and governments to implement policies to ensure land deals are fair and those affected are properly consulted.

A third important effect of Oxfam’s statements are to keep the debate alive. Although it is highly significant that consensus is forming regarding the destructive nature of the land rush in its current form, there is not the same degree of clarity about how the problem might be addressed. Meanwhile, the risk is that the global land rush becomes just another problem – like global warming – that lands in the ‘too big to handle’ category for policy-makers.

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