Background image of Aerial of forest land


Future We Want: Local food sovereignty, not land grabs

Most successful means of resistance to land grabbing have been local initiatives for sustainable land use.

As Ecotrust promotes a natural model of development, one that builds upon principles of healthy ecosystems, we’re paying close attention to global trends that affect the management of ecosystems and the services they provide – water, food, clean air.  One hot topic lately is the issue of land rights.

Arable land the world over is becoming an increasingly contested resource. In response to high food prices and relatively low land prices, an increasing number of investors and corporations have been buying up agricultural land in developing countries concentrated in Africa, but spanning the globe: Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia as well as Brazil, Cambodia, and Pakistan.

Land grabbing in Uganda
Land being cleared for a palm oil plantation in the Kalangala Islands in the Ugandan section of Lake Victoria. Jason Taylor/FOEI via Flickr.


Meanwhile, local, small-scale farmers and herders, who have customary rights but lack legal title to their land, are being pushed off their ancestral lands, often coercively, deceitfully, or through intimidation by the agribusiness companies themselves, the state police, or the local elites who benefit from the deals. Land grabbing has become a global issue: since 2001, an estimated 227 million hectares of large-scale land deals have occurred or are currently under negotiation.

Large-scale investments in agriculture promise to expand the global food supply and increase production of biofuels, which stand as an important, though flawed, alternative energy source. But can such investments accomplish these goals without trampling the rights of local smallholders or degrading other local services of nature – such as clean water, forest-filtered air, and biodiversity? Not as long as current systems of land tenure prevail.

Most international land transactions today occur between national governments who possess formal title to large tracts of land, and investors and agribusiness corporations from the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. However, due to the legacy of colonialism that pervades the legal systems of large parts of Africa and Asia, formal legal rights and customary land tenure patterns are often completely disconnected from one another.  From the perspective of the local people who live, farm and herd in these regions, agribusiness corporations have simply stolen their land.

In the short run, the increased world food supply will be used to feed growing populations in rapidly developing countries such as China and to bolster the food security of countries with fragile agricultural systems, such as Saudi Arabia. However, social and economic inequities will rise sharply as a result of these deals, as land becomes concentrated in fewer hands across the globe. In the countries that receive the investment, a growing proportion of land will be both foreign-owned and cultivated for export, undermining local food sovereignty.

So far, none of the proposed large-scale solutions to this problem have made a dent. United Nations human rights policy mandates that governments seeking to implement eminent domain on behalf of business seek free, prior and informed consent of affected local residents. However, this provision has not been enforced in most (if any) large-scale land deals. The World Bank, meanwhile, has proposed a set of guidelines for responsible agricultural investment, but its provisions have been weak.

The inadequate response of the multilateral agencies has sparked increasing involvement by NGOs and activists. Oxfam has recently released an influential – and controversial – report on the topic of land grabbing, and the global peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina, has been organizing protest events calling for the abolition of land grabs.

The International Land Coalition, an umbrella civil society organization, has most recently contributed to the ongoing effort by releasing its own report that draws from three years of research and analysis. Will the new attention given to this problem lead to adequate solutions that respect smallholders’ rights? Time will tell.

The most successful means of resistance to land grabbing have been local initiatives for sustainable land use, such as the community protected area in Cambodia profiled by Ecotrust’s Astrid Scholz in a recent blog post. In Rwanda, new and locally designed technologies for drying fruit and vegetables hold out the potential to expand small farmers’ access to export markets. These initiatives offer hope, but the question remains: are they scalable?

As we head to the global environment conference in Rio in June, are there sustainable, socially just, and scalable alternatives to land grabbing that respect farming and herding communities, increasing resilience while preserving biodiversity and traditional knowledge? We’ll continue to explore the themes of land rights and sustainability in the posts that follow.

How will we build the future we want? What are your ideas for radical institutional change? These are the questions the UN is asking in preparation for the Rio+20 Earth Summit in late June. In response to their Future We Want campaign, we’re curating transformative ideas for building a more resilient world. We’ll share some of the ideas we’re cooking up here at Ecotrust, but most of all, we want to hear from you. Email obrooks (at) ecotrust (dot) org.