Now Underway, An Outrageous International Land Grab

A massive international land grab is now underway as investors and national governments buy up millions of acres of farmlands in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  It amounts to an unprecedented and novel set of enclosures of worldwide land, much of it customary land that rural communities use and manage collectively.  Hundreds of millions of rural poor people rely upon the land for their families' food, water and material -- but they don't have formal property rights in the land.  Those rights typically belong to the government, which is authorizing the sale of “unowned” lands or "wastelands" to investors, who will then use the land for market-based farming or biofuels production.

The implications for global hunger and poverty are enormous.  Instead of commoners having local authority to grow and harvest their own food, they are being thrown off the land so that large multinational corporations and investors can feed their own countries or make a speculative killing on the world land market.  A commons is converted into a market, with all the attendant pathologies.

The 2008 financial crisis and the recent round of rising food prices on world markets have spurred much of the interest in buying up arable lands in poor countries.  Food-insecure countries figure they should take care of their own future even if it means depriving commoners in poor nations thousands of miles away.  So Saudi Arabia is spending $1 billion for 700,000 hectares of land in Africa for rice cultivation.  South Korea is buying up 700,000 hectares of African land as well.  India is assembling investment pools to buy up farmlands.

These are some of the disturbing facts to be found in Liz Alden Wily’s remarkable report, “The Tragedy of Public Lands:  The Fate of the Commons Under Global... released by the International Land Coalition in January 2011.

I met Wily at the International Association for the Study of Commons conference in India shortly after her report was published.  She is a political economist from New Zealand who has lived in Africa for years – currently, in Nairobi, Kenya – and studies land tenure systems and governance as an independent consultant. 

Wily told me that the current land grab has the markings of an invidious neo-colonialism.  This time it is not imperial nations asserting direct military control and exploitation of people and resources; rather, the process now consists of international investors acting in consort with friendly governments via liberalized trade regimes.  The state, as the lawful owner of the lands, is often quite willing to help implement the enclosures, expediently seizing “unowned” lands on behalf of the buyers.  Governments and well-connected elites can make out quite nicely by brokering the deals and legalizing title to the land.

The whole problem stems from the law's presumptions about what is to be considered property.  Under European law, land must be registered and there must be a formal title, among other formalities.  But in poor rural regions of Africa, such civil formalities are expensive and difficult to transact.  Customary use rights in land are the norm.  Conveniently for foreign investors, this facilitates the acquisition of legal title and cheaper prices.

What’s missing is a law protecting the commons – a recognition of rights of community-based governance that can stand up to private or state enclosures. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions most affected by the international land grab; the problem is especially bad in Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern Sudan, Ethiopia and Madagascar.  It is estimated that some 90 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa, or some 500 million people, use their lands as a matter of custom, and do not have statutory title to them. 

All told, some 2 billion people around the world are estimated to be similarly vulnerable.  Some 8.54 billion hectares (or 21.1 billion acres) of rural lands are presumed to be used under customary norms. 

While champions of the free market like to tout the efficiency gains that will supposedly come from putting “unused” lands into production, such familiar narratives are self-serving propaganda.  As one account on the website Farm Land Grab puts it:

It’s a one-dimensional stereotype that…. ignores [farmers’] intricate knowledge of local resources, the crop varieties they have developed to cope with a wide range of soil and climatic conditions, their complex and resilient agro-ecological family farming systems. It misses the bigger picture, the myriad other crops that the woman [framer] cultivates on a very agro-biodiverse family farm, the valuable trees that she and her family depend on for income, food, fibre, medicine, wood and that the soils depend on for fertility and protection. It perpetuates the false notion that Africa’s family farms are inefficient and non-productive.

The real story here is not about free-market productivity, but rather about dispossession, displacement and the loss of food sovereignty.  Much of the investment in land is purely speculative, the result of too much capital roaming the world looking for lucrative returns.  As a result, the people who have for decades used common forests, rangelands and farmlands as sources of food and household supplies, are exiled from their own lands:  a modern-day enclosure of colossal proportions. 

“In light of the fact that most allocations to investors are in the form of renewable medium-term leases of up to 99 years, it may be expected that loss of common properties will remove these lands from meaningful access, use and livelihood benefit for at least one generation and potentially up to four generations,” writes Wily.  This is a recipe for decades of famine, poverty and political turmoil.

The whole, sordid trend eerily echoes the English enclosure movement of the 15th to 18th centuries:  Investors and national governments collude in the sale of lands, “legally” expelling commoners from lands they have used for generations.  International human rights law, indigenous people’s law and simple moral decency may regard the new land enclosures as outrageous offenses.  But poor rural communities are not very well equipped to assert their rights before national or international tribunals.

A copy of Liz Alden Wily’s report can be downloaded here as a pdf file. Farm Land Grab is also closely monitoring this odious, little-known enclosure of the commons.  Finally, see a report by GRAIN, a small international NGO concerned about farmers’ control over biodiversity and local knowledge:  “Seized:  The 2008 Land Grab for Food and Security.”

David Bollier


News and Perspectives on the Commons

April 23, 2011


Views: 65


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Comment by catherine on May 25, 2011 at 10:03am

I'm afraid, this will further complicate the already gendered land rights in Sub-Saharan Africa. Land ownership and usage and generally inheritance is gendered. Males (men and boys) have all the rights to own and use land accordingly , which is not the case for females ( women and girls). While this is the case females remain the custodians of food security and provisions in families and communities. Though the existing communal land ownership system has been to some extent favourable for their role in society, the land grab system is likely to compromise their rights further and increase the level of food insecurity and poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Comment by tahir wadood malik on May 24, 2011 at 8:18am
some middle eastern governments are also involved in such activities in other countries as well, the malaise is more wide spread the is visible on the surface. the people in "power" in 'host' countries pocket their share, so what else is new?
Comment by Johnnie Special One Jackson on May 24, 2011 at 6:24am
ps - exactly right Samuel
Comment by Johnnie Special One Jackson on May 24, 2011 at 6:24am

|Great article.


Usual solution from the rural folk, get organised and fight shoot and bomb their way back  to running the land, over decades, as seen many times before : the governments think they are all-powerful but will pay the price for this theft with a long war, it how it goes.  People want war, they are monkeys with a wee bit more intellignence but not much,  as shown by educated governmments who persist with monkey like behaviour such as land grabs, they dont want conflict resolution unless it suits themselves, the future is one of such conflicts over land and water and resources, its best we get prepared mentally for it and decide whose side we are on.  The war between Marxism and capital has only taken a short pause.

Comment by Samuel Maruta on May 24, 2011 at 6:07am
In other words, while the United Nations is spending millions of dollars making, keeping and building peace in Africa, some of its members states, and citizens of some of its member states, are colluding in laying a complex foundation of future, perhaps more widespread and more intense, conflicts!? Cry the beloved world!!
Comment by Hope Tichaenzana Chichaya on May 24, 2011 at 3:54am

Thanks Patrick for posting this. This is an interesting and scaring issue.

What is interesting is that it is said that land size of Rwanda has been grabbed so far in South Sudan despite that the state is still young.What is scarring, at least for me, is that in most cases human rights are not applied during these land grabs. Then later human rights are used to protect the interests of the 'land grabers' at the expense of the minorities. Some argue for 'order' without 'justice'. Most African conflicts are rooted on the 'land issue', I guess. That is cooking disaster. More research in this aspect is needed. Grassroots education is vital too. Thanks for raising this.

Comment by Mangming Shing Jerome on May 23, 2011 at 8:58pm
In Northeast India where tribals are major residents the Government had special constitutional laws to protect tribal land rights. However recently state governments particularly Manipur have come up with new land reforms act to grab the tribal lands. The issue has snowballed into big divide between the tribals and non-tribals (Majority/dominant community) and the worst communal clash is looming large overhead.
Comment by Arrianna Marie Conerly Coleman on May 23, 2011 at 8:22pm

I wrote about this on my blog - Article: The Global Food Crisis & Land Grabs in Africa. Not only is this an issue of land rights, but water rights. At the Ethiopian-Kenyan border,  the Turkana of Kenya and the Dassanech, Nyangatom, and Mursi of Ethiopia (among 2 dozen other groups) are seeing more & more conflict over water.


In Sudan & Senegal, we see land being leased by the hectare for $0.07/year and water rights being given away willy-nilly. In Niger, Libya's government is buying land from under Nigerien farmers & using the land to produce food for Libyans, while the former inhabitants are left to forage or migrate elsewhere.

Comment by Doningnon Soro on May 23, 2011 at 8:09pm
I am from Ivory Coast and I can tell you the civil war we experienced originated from the land conflicts with natives fighting with none natives but whose parents owned some plantations on lands those lands. I really realised the problem was even worsre and complex and complicated when I worked on corporate conflicts resolution with local communities. I understood that even local communities themselves do not agree today with the borders of their community lands. Another problem which makes things worse is that communities did not have fomal borders limits. Sometimes the referrence limit was a tree, a river, a hill and so on. But with the villages extension and often the realization of an industrial plantation lands have been reshaped and the reference evidences have been destroyed or even the elder in each community who knew the real limis died without sharing that knowledge with others. So it is a very complex and sensible issue today with the hard job market is big cities and a high rate of unemployment.

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