by Rhodri C. Williams
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has announced the recent conclusion of a lengthy negotiation process to shape a set of Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. The resulting final draft will soon be published and is meant to be adopted at a special session of the body’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in mid-May. Afterwards, it is expected that the document will provide authoritative guidance to governments in drafting laws and policies in this area, with its legitimacy derived from the inclusiveness and extensiveness of the three year drafting process.
The scope of the voluntary guidelines is broad, and includes “promoting equal rights for women in securing title to land, creating transparent record-keeping systems that are accessible to the rural poor, and how to recognize and protect informal, traditional rights to land, forests and fisheries.” While numerous recent cases of abuse of state prerogatives over customarily held land demonstrate the needs for such guidelines, the experience of actors such as the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) counsels a degree of caution. As noted by the IDLO’s Erica Harper in these pages, prescriptive approaches to customary systems have tended to be counterproductive in the absence of an intimate understanding of local context:
…what works in a given country context is situation-specific and contingent upon a variety of factors, including inter alia, social norms, the presence and strength of a rule of law culture, socio-economic realities, and national and regional geopolitics. In order to make strategic decisions on what is likely to yield sustainable and positive impact, development practitioners need to possess in-depth knowledge of the target country, its people and its customary legal systems, as well as the theories and practicalities pertaining to legal development and customary justice programming.
At the same time, the scope of the new guidelines is limited in certain interesting respects. For instance, the FAO PR notes that they “come within the context of intensifying competition for land and other natural resources resulting from a variety of factors, including population growth, urbanization and large-scale purchases of farmland in the developing world by both overseas interests and domestic investors.” However, unlike the FAO, IFAD, UNCTAD and World Bank Principles for Agricultural Investment, the new guidelines provide only indirect guidance on addressing the ‘global land-rush‘.
In fact, the FAO has a separate drafting process underway to address large-scale land investment. As reported in TN last January, the FAO commissioned a project team to examine the issue of land tenure in the context of international investments in agriculture, developing recommendations for the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the CFS. The issue had been discussed at a policy roundtable at the CFS’ 2010 session (contrast the erudite overview provided by ILC with the Quatar National Food Security Program’s impenetrable defense of responsible investment). With the issuance of a July 2011 report and further side-event discussion at the October 2011 CFS session, the process seems to be underway.
However, the foreword to the July 2011 report clarifies that the issue is to be handled in a separate standard-setting process, resulting in “the elaboration of principles for responsible investments in agriculture with due consideration to the framework of the Voluntary guidelines on the tenure of land, fisheries and forests.” Muddying the waters slightly, the FAO also cooperated with Transparency International to develop a December 2011 working paper on how corruption in the context of weak governance undermines both land access and development. As reported here in TN, pervasive corruption in transnational land investment may be the crucial damning factor that has swung development opinion against the practice in recent months. In its press release, however, FAO referenced the forthcoming voluntary guidelines as its response to bad governance practices without mentioning the expert group on international investments.
More broadly, the new FAO guidelines will provide new material for the ongoing debate over corporate social responsibility approaches to land and natural resource exploitation, as well as non-state actor abuses more broadly. Two years ago, Chris Huggins posed the basic question of whether the lengthy and uncertain route of punitive enforcement measures should be chosen over the more forthcoming but less tested route of voluntary compliance. This question arguably remains as debated today as it was then. However, it is worth noting that Peter Spiro recently waxed optimistic in Opinio Juris, raising the possibility that Apple’s recent accession to the Fair Labor Association standards and auditing process could be “the biggest thing ever to happen in the world of private, rights-related codes of conduct” and “a major test case for the efficacy and legitimacy of non-governmental rights regimes.” So, onward FAO, and let a thousand voluntary standards bloom!