Prince William and Kate Middleton's future sealed in Africa's land grab hotspot

28 April 2011

Will and Kate, April 2011, Getty Images / Chris Jackson28 April 2011

When Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in a luxury game ranch in Kenya - on a continent he regards as his 'second home' - did they realise that they were at the centre of one of Africa's land grab hotspots?

Across Laikipia in northern Kenya, where William and Kate's engagement was sealed, land is being acquired and fenced by local white ranchers, politicians, and foreign investors and is displacing pastoralists, preventing them gaining access to traditional grazing lands. At the recent international conference on 'global land grabbing' held at IDS, John Letai of Oxfam GB revealed the extent of the land grabbing in this area and the consequences for pastoralist livelihoods (pdf).

Revealing the impacts of global land grabs

Concerns in Kenya are replicated across the world. New research on the global rush for agricultural land shows how small-scale farmer livelihoods and rights are increasingly at risk as land deals ignore local tenure rights and marginalise poor farmers and pastoralists. Fresh evidence about this trend in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union was presented at the conference, showing that land deals amounting to over 80 million hectares had been documented, a figure nearly twice that previously estimated.

The stakes are high for displaced peasant farmers, women and children, as well as national governments where land is being leased in large amounts. With land deals accelerating, particularly in Africa, Mahnaz Malik from the International Institute for Sustainable Development argued it is essential that the fine print of such deals is subject to careful scrutiny, and open, transparent and accountable governance mechanisms are put in place (Read Mahnaz Malik's conference paper pdf).

Research discussed at the conference showed how the rush to acquire land is driven by four factors: food price volatility and unreliable commodity markets, the energy crisis and agro energy/biofuels being seen as a solution, the global financial crisis, and a new developing market for carbon trading. Proponents of these deals say they are competitive, they economise on labour and they produce volumes sufficient for export and at prices that keep food cheap for poor consumers. But, as research from Cambodia to Cameroon to Colombia presented at the conference showed, the social and environmental costs of such deals are often not accounted for.

'Small-scale family agriculture, on which most of the world's rural poor still depend, is threatened by large-scale plantations, export-led agriculture and the production not of food but commodities.' said Olivier de Schutter, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in his opening speech at the conference.

But policies that can curb the power of investors, while securing land tenure and property rights for farmers, require state reforms and must precede land deal negotiations. 'The establishment of regulations and norms at multilateral levels is critical' said Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies in South Africa. 'Small-scale farmers need their land rights recognised and protected; this is the essential starting point for development. The African Union's Land Policy Guidelines  adopted in 2009 are a step in the right direction but more needs to be done to entrench these in national laws and institutions', she argued.

The conference highlighted ways to escape the trend that sees smallholders' options increasingly constrained. Reorienting agricultural investment away from land deals for large plantations or estates towards highly productive and efficient small-scale family agriculture and markets, supported by stronger farmer voices, was seen as critical. Participants pointed to securing land rights as central to ensuring equitable agricultural development.

Conference papers showed how land grabs, either through economic or physical means, are, as Teo Ballvé from University of California at Berkeley put it, actually the 'last step in a long chain of violent events', perpetrated against peasant farmers and pastoralists. (Read Teo Ballvé's conference paper pdf) This commodification and privatization of land and dispossession of farmers and herders is seldom taken into account in the boardrooms of corporations or in high-level meetings with governments. Yet, some argued, with the right international regulatory mechanisms, national government commitment to land rights and stronger farmer voices holding both governments and investors to account, there are ways that local food security and responsible land deals can coexist.

Participants at the conference advised extreme caution when governments or communities negotiate land deals. The track record to date has been poor, and while investment is critical for agriculture, the rush into long-term land leases is a dramatic step, with numerous risks and often substantial costs.