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The latest (big) numbers on land grabs, and some powerful case studies

September 22, 2011
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Economist land grab graphicOxfam adds its voice to the growing clamour about land grabs with two new reports out today. Land and Power: The Growing Scandal Surrounding the New Wave of Investments in Land pulls together some fascinating (and sometimes shocking) case studies from South Sudan, Uganda, Indonesia, Honduras and Guatemala, and adds up some big new global numbers. The New Forests Company and its Uganda Plantations goes into more detail on one of the case studies.

First the big number: the Land Matrix Partnership, a coalition of NGOs, academics and donors, has come up with a ceiling figure of 227m hectares (the size of Western Europe, 10x the UK) for the total area affected over the last 10 years. Big pinch of salt required – finding out exactly how much land has changed hands is incredibly difficult due to the lack of transparency and secrecy that often surrounds the deals. The 227 million figure is based on information on land deals from a whole range of different sources including government reports, academic research, company websites, international finance institutions media reports and the few contracts that are publicly available. My understanding is that this builds on the methodology used by other players like the World Bank, which came up with a 56m hectare figure in 2009, for deals over the 11 months to August 2009.

Due to all the different sources, with different company names and subsidiaries used, and different levels of information provided, there is bound to be some double counting or proposals that never materialised, (but also, no doubt, a bunch of deals we didn’t catch). So we are working through it all and cross-checking the data, but with over 2000 land deals this takes time. We’re up to 67 million hectares so far. I’ll keep you posted on where we get to.…

The case studies each contain different experiences and lessons. In Uganda, over 20,000 people have been evicted, many (and we talked to several hundred of them) claiming it was done violently, to make way for a forestry project of the UK-based New Forests Company.  The evictions were carried out by the government (although locals claimed they recognized NFC employees). NFC is saying the villagers were illegally on the land, they have received no reports of the use of violence, and take refuge in two independent endorsements of one of the plantations – certification by the Forestry Stewardship Council and a field assessment by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.

This raises important issues for even the best-intentioned investors – in many developing countries systems of formal and customary law coexist, and both need to be taken seriously – some of those evicted say they have been living on the land for 40 years or more. And the huge edifice constructed around sustainability, climate change and carbon sequestration (in this case involving both the FSC and the Clean Development Mechanism) really needs to be overhauled to make sure that if they are displaced, the people already living on the land exercise their right to Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), get proper compensation, and are found alternative livelihoods. None of that seems to be happening in the case in Uganda.

Palm oil-based biofuels is emerging as a driver of some nasty land grabs, and the Indonesia case looks at the role of a Malaysian/Indonesian joint venture company named PT MAS (subsidiary of palm oil giant Sime Darby), which is alleged to have land grabs Guatebacktracked on promises of land and investments to displaced communities. We found similar things going on in South Sudan, Honduras and Guatemala (eviction pictured here).

Overall, what emerges is a mess. Dodgy authorities, whether local or national, out for a quick buck; investors all too willing to turn a blind eye and be content with box-ticking and legalistic excuses; land lying idle despite promises to turn into a productive marvel; land tenure systems that are murky and offer little defense to poor communities; legal systems that are inaccessible to poor farmers. But in a few cases, civil society protest and/or action by the authorities seems to be correcting some of the worst excesses, which at least gives grounds for hope.

Agricultural investment can be a real boon to poor farmers, but not if it’s done like this. The balance of power has to be shifted to local communities, who need a much greater say (through FPIC) in what happens to their land. Host country governments need to clean up their act and be much more transparent about the deals being negotiated; the home country governments of the investors need to do more on regulation and disclosure and drop their daft biofuels mandates, which are contributing to the scramble; investors need to stop looking for excuses and follow the example of other sectors such as garments or supermarkets in accepting responsibility for the whole supply chain, not just the bit they directly own (we used to hear these kinds of denials from the shoe and clothing companies ten years ago – not any more).

Public campaigning played a big role in shifting the clothes companies and needs to get behind campaigns on land grabs too. That example does at least offer hope – the land deals are a short-term response, but high prices are probably here to stay, so the more we can do to civilize big agriculture investments  and turn them into drivers of development, rather than misery, the better.


  1. In India, the story is slightly different. Massive Land grab for Rapid urbanization of the country is taking place with the consent of the land owners who are small farmers. We should not forget all this is happening in Indo-Gangetic plains, which is indeed most fertile land of the world. All this land is going to be converted into modern cities where there were agricultural fields. There is a slogan to attaract and make up the mind of farmers “Leave Agriculture and count Currency notes. And almost all ignorant farmers are being trapped like this with no alternative livelihood for the coming generations. It is a generational loss of livelihood. But it is taking place with consent and active participation of government and banks. Recently few farmers challenged this in High Court and got favourable judgements but still it is a burning issue which has no answers.

  2. This sounds rather worrying.

    You may be aware that some major investors have come together to formulate a new set of Principles for investing in Farmland.

    Here is info about the principles themselves:

    And for info about the project/key organisations so far:

    I would be very interested to hear what you and readers of this blog think of this approach.

    One thing I think we need to consider is that the easy answer – to avoid such investments – means the field is wide open to sovereign wealth funds and UHNWIs from countries where democracy, accountability etc etc are even less on the cards than they are in West.

  3. Whether you like it or not, these evictions were totally legal, unless you are also planning to challenge the Dale Farm evictions and ask compensation for the evictees. Uganda has its own legislation, which does not protect customary rights very well, but why not fight for this rather than attack a company which has tried to conform to what was expected from it, to not encroach on national sovereignty and has been going out of its way to make it a fair and ethical process. The rights of the evictees can only be entrenched in national laws and not dictated by the whims of a company or an NGO. It would have been honest to make this point, and not to resort to uncorroborated or untrue allegations. The violence you described following testimonies of the evictees is denied by all official organs, by previous illegal settlers in the forest reserves and especially by a press release from the Ugandan government asking Oxfam to rewrite a more “accurate” report and denouncing a neo-colonial mindset, and not corroborated by the newspapers published at the time (Read the article of New Vision published in January 2010 which alludes to peaceful and voluntary evictions, the evictees being allowed to come back on the reserves to take their possessions and to harvest their fields). True or not, I do not know, but I suspect neither do you.
    Furthermore, you have been ignoring the impact that such a report could have on Ugandan people, who resent Oxfam’s interference in their own affairs enormously, a little bit like an Ugandan NGO writing a report about the violent evictions of Dale Farm, and in the process putting out of business a British company, with a loss of 500+ jobs, a company which on the face of it seems to be effectively a blueprint of what a company investing in Africa should be.
    The worst is that you or Oxfam are making it impossible for anybody to present an alternative point of view. Comments in the press are being censored. You are maybe powerful, but it happens that sometimes you are wrong. This is one of these times.
    Does Oxfam plan to compensate the laid-workers for their loss of livelihoods?

  4. Hi Duncan,

    Like David I am also really keen on seeing the data compiled by the Land Matrix Partnership.

    Do you know when and where it will be available (I see this was posted in October last year).

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