Land grabs: what’s really happening?

landgrabsThe global financial crisis has given way to a rush for land. If people ever took the land they lived and worked on for granted, they can no longer afford to do so. Tracts of territory are being leased or bought, often in secret, by alliances involving corporations, governments and private equity firms. The second international Global Land Grabbing conference will examine the current evidence and analysis on this complex issue.

What are the consequences? For some, land deals mean losing income and a place to live; violence or intimidation; or long periods of uncertainty and conflict as deals are worked out, often in secret. Some are able to organise resistance and lobby for their voice to be heard.

The picture is not always as simple as it sometimes appears. Land deals are not just about foreign companies coming to Africa and taking land: they can involve complex negotiations with local elites, government officials and traditional leaders. The reasons are varied – from so-called ‘green grabs’ for biofuels, conservation or eco-tourism, ‘water grabbing’, attempts to create jobs or tackle poverty – or even for reasons that remain unclear to those on the wrong end of the deals.

Local accountability is often very weak, and the deals are shrouded in secrecy. This secrecy and uncertainty undermines people’s ability to resist. But it also creates a problem for anyone analysing land deals and how they could benefit people – or at least, how the harm they do could be minimized.

First of all, many sites are bought or leased, but then not developed. This is the worst of all worlds: people are displaced, but no investment or jobs are created. The promised benefits are a mirage, but the disruption is real.

Secondly, the figures on land grabbing vary widely, and perceptions differ. Depending on who you ask, the figures of global land acquisition range between 50 and 700 million hectares since 2008. The language of land grabbing is politically charged, and narratives at different scales conflict and interact with one another. What to some is a necessary part of global development is for others an unforgivable violation of human rights. Nuanced views are not always easy to find.

These topics, and many more, will be discussed at the second international conference on Global Land Grabbing in Cornell this month. José Graziano da Silva (DG of the UN FAO) will speak on day 3. Future Agricultures is involved through the Land Deal Politics Initiative, and our research will be showcased alongside many other findings from around the world.

You can join in the conversation on Twitter (using the hashtag #landgrabs2) and on the discussion forum created for the conference.