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Large Scale Land Investments Do Not Benefit Local Communities

In April 2010, more than 120 farmers’ groups and non-governmental organizations all across the world signed a statement declaring their opposition to the guiding principles endorsed by the World Bank, the FAO, IFAD and UNCTAD on “responsible” land investments.

The campaign, spearheaded by NGOs GRAIN, FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), Land Research Action Network (LRAN) and La Via Campesina, calls for an immediate end to land grabbing, claiming that it “denies land for local communities, destroys livelihoods, reduces the political space for peasant oriented agricultural policies and distorts markets towards increasingly concentrated agribusiness interests and global trade rather than towards sustainable peasant/smallhold production for local and national markets.”

The groups also believe that land-grabbing will “accelerate eco-system destruction and the climate crisis” because many of the deals rely on industrial and “mono-culture oriented” production systems.

In an interview with Nourishing the Planet, writer and activist Raj Patel denounced land-grabs as “modern forms of colonialism, except with colonialism there was the argument that the colonizers were bringing civilization to the people they were colonizing. This time around, they don’t bother with that justification. There’s not even the pretense of bringing civilization – now it’s just about efficiency.”

Patel noted that when people tout these land deals as an effective means to end hunger, they often ignore the fact that many deals are not growing food at all, but instead pursuing the rapidly expanding biofuels market. “When you’re talking about turning arable land into zones of cultivation for jatropha, you’ve a hard time arguing that anyone’s belly is going to be fuller as a result,” he said. A 2008 report by the FAO and the International Institute for Environment and Development documents the displacement of households due to this trend in particular. One example the report cites is a multimillion dollar British jatropha project in the Kisarawe district of Tanzania that “has been reported to involve acquiring 9,000 ha of land and the clearing of 11 villages which, according to the 2002 population census, are home to 11,277 people.”

The issue of capturing water in these deals is also often not discussed, but it was mentioned in the April statement, as an example of the many factors that need to be included when assessing the value of the land being leased or sold.

In numerous deals, land under negotiation is described as “idle” or “unused” – a glaring misrepresentation of the indigenous people (including many pastoralists) who in fact live on and have worked the land for years. In an interview with GRAIN, Nyikaw Ochalla, a member of the indigenous Anuak nation in Ethiopia describes the government’s complete disregard for his people’s livelihoods. “There is no consultation with the indigenous population, who remain far away from the deals,” he says. “The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands. And they have no place to voice their opposition. They are just being evicted without any proper consultation, any proper compensation.”

“There are 1.5 billion small-scale farmers in the world who live on less than 2 hectares of land,” according to Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of The Oakland Institute and member of the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group. “Secure and equitable access to and control over land allows these farmers to produce food, which is vital for their own food security as well as that of rural populations throughout the developing world.”

The signatories of the April statement (of which Patel was one), demand true agrarian reform, which includes investment in research and training programs for small-holder farmers, overhauling trade policies, supporting regional markets, enforcing strict regulations to foreign direct investment, and promoting “community-oriented food and farming systems hinged on local people’s control over land, water and biodiversity.”

When asked about alternative business models like contract farming, proposed by many intergovernmental agencies, Raj Patel concluded, “What we need is for people to decide what they want to do with the land. The alternative to contract farming on grabbed-land is if people were able to decide in a community forum, in which women had equal voice with men, what the fate of the land should be. That’s what food sovereignty is about. And anything less than that is really just crumbs from the table.”

To read the second half of the interview with Raj Patel, see Change is Possible in this Complex Food System. For examples of agricultural training programs in Africa, see Girl Up: Helping Girls around the Globe Help Each Other Working with the Root, and Improving African Women’s Access to Agriculture Training Programs.

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