Insecurity & Sustainability: Understanding the ‘Land Grab’ Phenomenon

2007 marked the first year that a majority of the world’s people lived in urban areas. As the population grows, however, so too does the demand for rural lands for food production and development. In the past few years, you have probably heard the term land grabs in major news headlines. Although there is no generally accepted definition, the term has been used to describe the buying up of very large, undeveloped rural lands in the developing world by international investors and development firms. From Malawi to Papua New Guinea, an estimated 33 million hectares of land have changed hands around the world since 2000, according to the Land Matrix, an online land deal database. And these are just the deals we know about — most happen behind closed doors.

The land-grabbing phenomenon has sparked significant debate amongst businesspeople, academics, and activists. One side sees this as vital agricultural and developmental “investment,” while the other sees this as nothing more than “neo-imperial” efforts by the developed world to secure future food production and profit. Headlines have been debating the veracity of those huge land grab numbers and whether they will finally bring some nations out of abject poverty. Yet, most headlines fail to look at the underlying questions about these big land deals. While most stories depict the developing world as the passive victim of international buyers, domestic policies and laws (or lack thereof) concerning land tenure and security in developing nations help enable these deals.

In many developing countries around the world, rural citizens live on what is called “communal” or “customary” lands, lands governed by traditional leaders with generations-old customs. These customs decide how “tenure” is practiced, or how land is transferred and passed to new generations. Today, sometimes these customs don’t fit into the modern world or serve the interests of elites. In South Africa, for example, the lands from which millions of black people were forcibly removed during apartheid are still considered “communal” lands that the government holds through traditional authority, which can take or “expropriate” land as it sees fit. But even the South African government is not sure who owns what, making for a very messy legal landscape and increased class struggles.

When would-be investors come in — whether they be large multinational agro-business groups, domestic companies, or the government itself — the deal is not a clear-cut purchase. Oftentimes, traditional leaders or incorporated trusts act on behalf of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people who live or work on the land in question. However, most citizens residing on rural lands have no legally recognized claim to the lands they live on. Consultation with these “stake holders” is rare and compensation is often greatly disproportionate to the costs associated with moving, ending a way of life, and the denial of agency to decide one’s future.

There’s a global push to strengthen rural land rights. USAID, Devex (an international development news source), and others are currently participating in a marketing campaign to increase awareness of how #landmatters on Twitter, though some have suggested that the campaign obscures complex political and economic realities in specific countries. Others do not believe freehold tenure is the answer to economic growth either. Everyone involved is pursuing development, however it is defined, and sustainability is a central question. If rural development often comes at the cost of local claims to land, is the deal sustainable? Does it create sustainable development through opportunities and rights or one-off economic gain for a select few? Are securing land rights and promoting investment mutually exclusive?

Image Credit: PZFUN at en.wikipedia


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