Land grab politics: debating the issues

31 October 2012

Land grabbing is never far from the headlines. It’s also an issue marked by secrecy in land deals themselves, as well as conflicts over evidence, causes and impacts. What should be done about land grabs, and who should do it, remains a topic of intense debate on the international stage.

Graziano da Silva, FAO Director General. Photo: Future Agricultures Consortium

Emerging trends

This month, two hundred participants, including academics and activists, practitioners and policymakers, working in 32 different countries, gathered at the second ‘Global Land Grabbing’ conference at Cornell University in the US. Convened by the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI), which the IDS-based Future Agricultures Consortium is part of, this major event followed on from the first conference held at IDS, 18 months earlier. The Cornell event was aimed at reflecting on the new trends and patterns emerging in this fast-moving global phenomenon.

Reporting on the IDS conference, The Economist observed: 'the burden of evidence has shifted and it is up to the proponents of land deals to show that they work. At the moment, they have precious few examples to point to'. Eighteen months on examples of successful large-scale land investments remain few and far between. The 120 papers presented at Cornell document in detail the processes involved, highlighting in particular the major governance challenges arising, the processes of resistance unfolding, and the shifting pattern of who is doing the ‘grabbing’. It is far from a simple story.

Yet, although the total farm areas taken for such investments remain on aggregate small, they have a huge impact in certain locations. And this new trend, driven by a combination of contemporary ‘crises’, of finance, fuel and food, is certainly high on the political agenda. Urgent policy responses, especially in Africa, are needed.

Putting agrarian reform back on the development agenda

In a keynote address to the conference, the new Director General of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, offered one of his first statements on land grabbing since taking up office. As a scholar of agrarian change and a former minister in Brazil, he knows plenty about the subject. FAO, under the Committee for Food Security, was instrumental in the process of developing the 'Voluntary Guidelines the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security' (pdf). Agreed earlier this year, as part of a long negotiating process involving all parties, they offer an important platform for continued debate. As Graziano da Silva confirmed, the proof of their effectiveness will come through national implementation, and he urged academic researchers attending the conference, as well as practitioners and activists, to engage with these processes. He argued strongly that transparency and participation must be the touchstones of any policy.

Following Graziano da Silva's address, participants posed some tough questions – on how ‘voluntary’ guidelines will have purchase, on how FAO will balance interests between investor countries (including his own, Brazil) and areas where land is being taken, on FAO’s stance on land investment following the controversial Wall Street Journal article which he co-authored, and on the international governance of investment. Graziano da Silva did not have answers for all, and some areas of policy remain vague, but it is clear that under his leadership agrarian reform and land questions are back on the agenda.

Following its establishment in 1948, FAO took a strong lead on these issues, but in recent years they have not been so high a priority. The ‘technical agency’ label perhaps means that the organisation shies away from these challenges. But hopefully in the coming years, a strong leadership on agrarian reform issues will emerge from Rome.

For more insights from the Global Land Grabbing Conference II, see Ian Scoones' blog on the Future Agricultures website: 'Seeing more clearly: new perspectives on the global land grab'.

Ian Scoones is an IDS Research Fellow and co-Director of the Future Agricultures Consortium.

Photo: Jose Graziano da Silva addresses participants at the Land Grabbing II conference. Credit: Future Agricultures Consortium.