Friday 17 February 2012

The Land Rush

Sam Storr

African palms being grown in Guatemala. Photo: Eitan Haddok

Crucial investments enabling Africa to feed both itself and the world, or a new wave of totalising globalisation that will bring about a dystopian age of hunger? The last decade has seen the phenomenon known as ‘land grabs’ reveal the most glaring inequalities in international property law.

Densely populated, industrialising countries such as China and North Korea require foreign lands to maintain food security as they grow, as do the oil-rich but water-poor Gulf States. As developed countries scramble to appear sustainable, the sacrifices are to be outsourced to those who polluate the least, but occupy the cheap land and fresh water needed to grow biofuels. Various institutions, such as Harvard University or even Scandinavian Churches, also make profitable investments in land through large hedge funds. Population rises and global warming could make freshwater the new petroleum; the International Institute for Environment and Development believes land grabs are better defined as ‘water grabs’.

Although land is not always sold, leases range from between a half- and a full- century. Contracts remain strictly confidential, which excludes both researchers and affected communities. Estimates suggest the land rented to be in the realm of 50 million hectares over the last few years. An uncontrolled market might be in the interests of some, but should be uncomfortable for those countries contributing aid in the name of development, human rights and good governance. Recent claims that land dispossessions were an important cause of conflicts in Sudan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone make this a key foreign policy issue.  

Development, infrastructure, food security; all are rightly seen as essential to unlocking Africa’s potential. To protect responsible investments, international law must ostracise those deals which illegally dispossess or disrupt the livelihoods of local populations. These are primarily the result of a systemic inequality; whilst international investment agreements provide strong legal guarantees that foreign investments will be protected, the fate of local populations is left entirely in the hands of national elites. 

Customary land tenure systems can be poorly integrated into the centralised states given sole precedence in international property law. The Rights and Resources Initiative claims that 428 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa use land in common that is in fact claimed by the state. A lack of documentation prevents land claims from being made, and allows the false assumption that land unaccounted for is unused. The poorest rural populations are being overwritten by dreams of modernisation and centralised state-building processes. Their best legal protections are the basic human rights to claim a livelihood. 

It cannot be assumed that a government gives adequate protection to its communities. Sudan in particular has been criticised for ignoring customary laws in order to support counter-insurgency strategies, and allow large-scale commercial development at the expense of smallholders.  One recent investment by the US firm Agrisol would evict over 160,000 long-established, but persecuted Burundian refugees from Tanzanian land. Agrisol, echoing the language of the Tanzanian government, claims to be developing land ruined by refugee camps, creating food security and spreading development in Tanzania.  The Oakland Institute (OI) contends that established businesses, farms and homes are being ended by the eviction. Repatriation should be voluntary; leasing the land whilst it is still occupied is an attempt to undermine the rights of those deemed undesirable to remain in the lives they have built for themselves.

The unilateral formation of international property law conveniently fails to question the rights of those given the keys to Africa. Until this can be rectified, comparisons with the colonial era of development are justified.

There are also arguments that predatory land investments violate more than property rights. At some point the land grab issue becomes a debate about the actual environmental and economic impact of heavy agriculture, monocrops and biofuels. Some claim that the efficiency and economic impact of sustainable communal farming is grossly underrated in comparison. In the case of Agrisol, it is doubted whether Tanzanian farmers will benefit from employment or instead be indentured to a large agricultural corporation, buying tools and GM seeds in a closed market. 

Neither can it be assumed that land rentals will bring greater revenues to affected populations. An OI report finds that major land deals typically include extremely generous financial incentives, such as tax exemptions and the right to expatriate all profits or produce. Land is rented out at a fraction of the price of developed countries or even, in the case of a 50-year lease on 100,000 hectares in Mali, for free. All non-renewable resources that are sold too cheaply are lost forever, and land can be damaged by intensive agriculture. Amartya Sen famously demonstrated that food availability has little relationship to the entitlements of the impoverished. The self-congratulatory promises of investors cannot justify the irony of land being lent for the use of the rich whilst its former inhabitants go hungry.

A great deal of research and legislation is required to give individual and customary property rights the same protections as foreign investments. This will necessarily be a transformative and contested process, as such systems can be highly complex, heterogeneous, and embedded in society rather than easily-legalised structures. For liberal legislators, this represents a chance to enshrine better property rights for women. Despite the dominant role of African women in food production, many are dependent on their marriage for their rights, and some traditional protections have even eroded with time. Putting the small farmer on the map is the first step towards acknowledging their economic contribution, needs and potentials, whilst encouraging corporate responsibility. The negotiating process should be more transparent so that governments and investors cannot avoid legal accountability, and are subject to enforceable guidelines that would allow local populations to dispute negotiations. 

Dispossession, the disruption of livelihoods and environmental damage can all be fought under the aegis of human rights standards, but not until the above work is done. Given the global pressures to exploit African resources, and the umbrella arguments of development and food security, it is important that states are convinced of their incentives and responsibilities to respect the rights of the marginalised. Ultimately, such reforms should be seen as enabling responsible investors to operate with less controversy.