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The hidden impact of land deals

Kenya_riceThe rush for global farmland by foreign governments and corporations has become headline news. These deals are often criticised as forms of “neo-colonialism” and, as was the land-grabbing case in Madagascar in 2009, is often accompanied by protests. Despite some of these deals being well-publicised, their impacts remain little understood. Central to the issue of equitable land deals are questions of who wins, who loses and why, and what are the social, political and ecological consequences.

Reports of vast amounts of rural farmland being scooped up by foreign governments and corporations are making international headlines. Countries rich in oil but poor in land and water, as well as international corporations, banks, financiers and sovereign funds appear to be driving this interest looking to stem domestic uncertainty over food supply and prices.

Despite promises of economic prosperity and employment, the impact on people farming their land for generations is uncertain at best. To highlight the debate and dissent on the issue, an international conference on “Global Land Grabbing” will be held next week from April 6-8 at the UK Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.  This will be attended by researchers and policymakers, with over 120 papers documenting cases from across the world being presented. Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, will be the keynote speaker at the conference and will to provide his views to open the debate.

Land is central to identity, livelihoods and food security and yet despite the media reports and some published research, international land deals and their impacts often remain hidden. The questions of who wins, who loses and why, as well as the social, political and ecological consequences, are central to understanding the impact of such deals.

For example, Africa appears an easy target for land deals due to the dominance of customary land tenure and land use that are inadequately recognised by government.  In addition an abundance of available land, known as the “Guinea-Savannah” zone, was noted in a recent World Bank study as a “vast under-utilized land reserve”.  The zone is some 45 million hectares and one of the favoured places for Gulf States looking to secure food supply.

Despite the lack of public knowledge on the outcomes of land deals, new research is revealing issues of real concern. Displacement, unrealised promises of employment, deals without real investment, deforestation for biofuels driven by subsidies and incentives in the north to switch to non-fossil fuel sources as part of ‘energy security’

drives, are amongst the issues hidden within many reports. And, whilst land deal descriptions tend to focus on the apparent protagonists – oil rich and land poor Gulf States, and African governments that barter away swaths of arable land, this is an oversimplification of who has a stake in these deals.

Research on the impacts of land grabbing is being conducted by researchers working with the Future Agricultures Consortium. Ruth Hall from the South African Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)  argues that “the vacant land discourse, promoted by some land deals, is fundamentally flawed”.  She states that “cases of deals made for land that is unclaimed, unused or unoccupied by local people is simply untrue”. As well as land grabbing, water, minerals, forests, and other natural resources and labour are also being exploited. Small-scale farmers are becoming wage labourers with the result that social differences are accentuated under such deals. Mono-cropping and large areas being converted from staple crops and small-scale agriculture also result in land changes that are not easily reversed.

However, new research is increasingly bringing these hidden impacts to light. Understanding the opportunities that these deals can bring, as well as the real costs in social, economic and environmental terms is critical to making deals that are fair and equitable. But this understanding also needs the participation of governments to undertake land tenure reform and a redirection of agriculture policy to replace land grabbing with equitable land deals. Such issues will be discussed and potential solutions presented at this landmark event.