Land Rush

Large-scale land deals are increasingly common in some developing regions. What happens to the poor people who are already there? And what happens to women?

The food price crises of recent years have unleashed a global land rush. Between 2000 and 2010, foreign investors negotiated to lease or acquire at least 71 million hectares of land—an area slightly larger than France—in other countries. Nearly half of this total is in Africa. A recent International Land Coalition (ILC) report, Land Rights and the Rush for Land, to which IFPRI contributed, says the number and size of recent deals point to the “unprecedented scale of the land rush over the past decade.”

Source for figure and map: W. Anseeuw, L. Alden Wily, L. Cotula, and M. Taylor, Land Rights and the Rush for Land (Rome: International Land Coalition, 2012). (click to enlarge)

For some people, these land deals represent attractive opportunities to inject much-needed capital into the agricultural sector of poor developing countries. For others, the deals are a disturbing trend in which investors from wealthy countries snap up land in poor countries for their own benefit, displacing and threatening the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and other local people who use the land.

Source for figure and map: W. Anseeuw, L. Alden Wily, L. Cotula, and M. Taylor, Land Rights and the Rush for Land (Rome: International Land Coalition, 2012). (click to enlarge)

“What happens to the local people is the litmus test,” says Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a senior research fellow at IFPRI. Many of the hundreds of land deals have not been examined in sufficient detail—sometimes because investors deny access to researchers—but current empirical evi-dence suggests that skepticism about the deals is warranted. “In the first IFPRI policy brief on this topic in 2009 [“Land Grabbing” by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries], we laid out the potential benefits and risks, but there are now so many cases of how these deals have harmed local people that, if anyone wants to say these can be beneficial, the burden of proof is on them to show that they are, in fact, beneficial,” says Meinzen-Dick.

Whose Land?

In rural areas, land may appear to be available for acquisition when actually it serves as the foundation for local livelihoods. Land that looks unused may be where locals graze their animals, gather firewood, or collect medicinal plants. Smallholder farmers often do not hold formal title to their land, but may have effectively owned it for years under customary or indigenous tenure arrangements. “I think a lot of the foreign investors are going in without full awareness of the costs and the complexities,” says Meinzen-Dick.

When legal systems requiring formal land titles are introduced into societies where customary tenure arrangements have been used for generations, the results don’t automatically protect the rights of existing landowners, particularly the rural poor—instead, they often serve the interests of governments and elites. As the recent ILC report notes, laws may fail to recognize land owned under customary tenure as real property and deem this land untitled, allowing governments to claim it as state property. Even those holding formal titles may have their land expropriated by the government in order to serve the “public interest,” such as the need for more foreign investment in rural areas.

Women Left Out

Land deals often have different impacts on men and women. Poul Wisborg of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and recently a visiting researcher at IFPRI, conducted an in-depth case study of a Norwegian company that leased land in Ghana to grow jatropha for biofuel production. The company asserted that its project would benefit women specifically, but Wisborg’s study found otherwise.

The first consultations with the local community consisted predominantly of meetings with local chiefs. “Women had less power than men to influence the early negotiations—after all, women are excluded from the chiefly institutions in Ghana,” says Wisborg. The project did create some jobs, but men tended to get the full-time, permanent positions while women were hired mostly as temporary day labor.

In addition, says Wisborg, “when land uses were affected by the project, these disproportionately hurt women.” For example, the Norwegian company cut down many trees during land clearing, but it pledged to protect certain species, such as shea nut trees, which are highly valued by West African women for use in food, medicines, and cosmetics. Once the other trees were gone, however, local charcoal producers started harvesting the shea nut trees, and many were lost.

The power imbalance between governments and investors on one side and poor, rural communities on the other is a crucial factor. In a recent journal article, “The Gender Implications of Large-Scale Land Deals,” IFPRI researchers Julia Behrman, Ruth Meinzen-Dick, and Agnes Quisumbing point out that developing-country governments alone often cannot be relied on to enforce rules in favor of local people.

According to Michael Taylor, program manager for Global Policy and Africa at the ILC, “The negative outcomes result from the context in which these investments take place: poor governance, poor democracy, poor regulations and policies on land use, and a poor view of small farmers compared with large-scale commercial farming operations.”

Protecting citizens’ rights in land deals often requires help from the media, farmers’ organizations, domestic and international nongovernmental organizations, and community organizations. These groups can put pressure on governments and help communities advocate for their rights.

For more information on this topic:

Another recent report from the International Land Coalition and several partners