Global land governance: an idea whose time has come?

Although these governance processes seem very distant from the local, we know from experience in other fields such as human rights, labour, international trade and environmental standards that transnational and global governance can have a major influence on developments on the ground. This matters when thinking about current and future policies and strategies that may facilitate land grabbing, but that may also be a potential means to curb and/or limit its worst excesses. This doesn’t mean that global and transnational governance is more important than local or national levels of governance; but it is an important piece of the puzzle that needs to be better understood.

Scholars of global and transnational governance are interested in explaining why new governance instruments are created: that is, why do actors agree on the need for new and more governance? Who participates, and how, in the design, negotiation and implementation of new governance processes? And do new governance instruments achieve their intended outcomes? Why or why not? Lastly, do new governance instruments lead to unanticipated and unforeseen consequences? These questions are particularly important to ask and answer in the case of land grabbing – an issue that has very real, direct and immediate consequences for the livelihoods of millions of people.

The emergent global/transnational land governance is so new that, at this point, scholarship has more questions than answers. However, several characteristics are becoming clear. There will be no single overarching institution to ‘govern’ land grabs, nor is it likely to take the form of an international binding treaty. This is evident in both the voluntary, soft-law approaches of the Voluntary Guidelines and the Principles. However, these outcomes should not be interpreted as governance failures or that these instruments are devoid of regulatory power. Scholars of global and transnational governance have long pointed out that over the last twenty years, the general pattern has been a shift away from ‘hard’, binding international law towards differentiated forms of governance, including voluntary forms, and hybrid public and private arrangements. Some, but not all, of these governance arrangements can be highly effective, especially those in the environmental field. Therefore, there may be important lessons to draw from what has worked and what hasn’t in other fields of governance: both in terms of the specific rules and implementation processes, but also from transnational advocacy campaigns and norm-generating activities, especially for those interested in mitigating the potentially negative impacts of land grabbing.

A big unknown is the future course of emergent global/transnational land grabbing. For example, research into global governance has found that global and transnational governance outcomes are less a result of a single institution, but instead are mediated through the interaction of several institutions that may or may not be formally linked and coordinated. This is of course evident in the case of the Voluntary Guidelines and Principles that now are likely to operate concurrently in some form. Indeed, the fact that the Principles are now being ‘integrated’ into the implementation work of the Voluntary Guidelines is an important development.

However, it is also important to look beyond the Voluntary Guidelines and Principles, as land tenure and investment in agriculture are very likely to be influenced by developments in other governance fields. For example, there is already substantial evidence of the role of bilateral investment treaties in driving land grabs by privileging the interests of investors and supporting these interests through the power of the law. Less well understood, for example, are the implications of new initiatives in other sectors such as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradations (REDD +) and future agreements in international trade in environmental goods and services.

Indeed, there is much we do not know. The Global Land Grabbing II conference this week provides a unique and important opportunity for those scholars and activists interested in better understanding the relationships between local/national developments and the emergent global/transnational governance to exchange ideas, experiences and deepen networks. I, for one, am looking forward to these exchanges and encourage anyone with similar interests to contact me at