Is There a “Win-Win” Solution to Land Acquisitions?

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By Ronit Ridberg

This is the second in a series of articles on large-scale agricultural investments, or land-grabs.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that in order to feed the anticipated 9.1 billion people in 2050, agricultural production worldwide needs to increase by 70 percent. Historically, the response to global hunger has focused on food aid and agricultural investment in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and increasingly, genetically engineered seeds. More recently, governments of wealthy countries lacking in fertile, arable land or abundant water supplies have begun to buy or lease large tracts of land in poorer countries for agricultural production and export.

The focus of many recent inter-governmental agency reports has been the fate of small-holders in the midst of large scale land acquisitions by foreign investors. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

While no-one knows the exact number of these controversial deals, hundreds have been reported in the media and in a slew of recent reports on the issue. Increasingly seen as a sound business investment or a means to enter the biofuels market (in addition to ensuring food security) investors are not only governments, but also agribusiness and financial companies. A clickable map created by the International Food Policy Research Institute illustrates a wide range of deals, like South Korea’s securing of 690,000 hectares in Sudan for wheat, to 2.8 million hectares in the Democratic Republic of Congo for China’s ZTE International’s biofuel oil palm plantation.

In his opening remarks at the World Bank’s April Annual Bank Conference on Land Policy and Administration, Dr. Kanayo Nwanze, President of International Fund for Agricultural Development, showcased the conundrum for policy makers on this issue. He emphasized the importance of land sovereignty and investments in smallholder agriculture to food security and indigenous identity, but also spoke about how foreign deals could be a “win-win” solution for those involved. He highlighted the need for more community-investor partnerships which “don’t require large-scale transfer of land rights. What is important is that they should be long-term. That they should balance profit with social responsibility. And they should be supported by governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector, to ensure that they are mutually beneficial.”

Dr. Nwanze pointed to the collaborative example of the West Garo Hills Tea Factory in India, where local communities provided land, bricks and labor while a private company provided machinery, factory design and training. A government agency put up money for the processing machinery and the resulting processed tea is divided between the local community and a private tea company.

The tea company example is just one of many alternative business models promoted at the World Bank meeting , where session themes included discussion of the social, economic and environmental impacts of these deals. Others, like outgrower models and contract farming, offered mixed results. Many suggested these alternative approaches had potential – but only if certain other things were put in place, like securing land rights, giving local community members a role in negotiations, strengthening the integrity of contracts, and establishing robust monitoring mechanisms to oversee implementation of land policies and laws.

Michael Taylor, Program Manager at the International Land Coalition (ILC) outlined in a recent paper a number of inter-governmental and governmental agencies who have proposed their own sets of principles to make these land acquisitions more responsible, including:

To critics, voluntary guidelines and principles are just that: voluntary. At best, they present a mechanism to protect indigenous rights. But at worst they provide a smokescreen, behind which lies the exploitation of workers and their rights to food security and land tenure.

In an interview posted on ILC’s website last month, Taylor said the ILC “is actually trying to promote some sort of dialogue between these different proposals. We see the danger that some organizations might rush and put in place a global set of principles without consulting the most important stakeholders that is to say: the people who live on the land, women’s organizations, farmers’ organizations, indigenous communities, livestock keepers’ organizations. They need to be part of this debate.”

According to FAO’s Director-General Jacques Diouf, “Africa is rich in arable land, water and labour and with the implementation of appropriate policies could increase agricultural production, incomes and food security.” The question then, is how best to invest? Nourishing the Planet has been highlighting innovations that improve food security and farmers’ livelihoods while also protecting natural resources. These practices have a very different kind of potential for the continent’s small-holders than large-scale commercial agricultural production by foreign investors.

Stay tuned for the third article in this series, which will focus on opposition from non-governmental organizations, not only to large scale land deals, but also to these guiding principles. For more examples of smallholder innovations mentioned above, see Our Survey Continues to Receive Responses from Innovators in Agriculture, Making a Living Out of Conservation and Innovation of the Week: Farmers Groups and Cooperatives.

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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