Modern day land rush forcing thousands into greater poverty

By bgrossmancohen

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WASHINGTON, D.C.- The fast growing pace of land deals brokered around the world  often comes at the expense of poor communities who lose their homes and livelihoods – sometimes violently – with no prior consultation, compensation or means of appeal, says a new report released today by international relief and development organization Oxfam.

In developing countries as many as 560 million acres of land, an area greater than the size of California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming combined, have been sold, leased or licensed in large-scale land deals since 2001, mostly by international investors, according to the report, Land and Power. Lack of transparency and secrecy that surrounds these deals makes it difficult to get exact figures but preliminary research suggests that half of these acquisitions are in Africa, and cover an area nearly the size of Germany. However, many of the deals are in fact ‘land grabs’ where the rights and needs of the people living on the land are ignored, leaving them homeless and without land to grow enough food to eat and make a living.

“Land investment should be good news for people in poverty, but the frenetic scramble for land risks taking development in reverse,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America. “Investors have increasingly set their sights on land often ignoring the people who live there and depend on it to survive.  This unprecedented drive is leaving many of the world’s poorest people worse, not better-off.”

The report warns that a modern day land rush follows a drive to produce enough food for people overseas, meet damaging biofuels targets or speculate on land to make an easy profit.  This is likely to get worse as the increasing demand for food, the gathering pace of climate change, water scarcity and non-food crops like biofuels compete for land. Already, nearly three billion people live in areas where demand for water outstrips supply.

Oxfam’s report profiles the devastating effect land grabs in Uganda, South Sudan, Indonesia, Honduras and Guatemala are having on vulnerable communities.

In Uganda, Oxfam’s research indicates that at least 22,500 people have lost their homes and land to make way for a British timber company, the New Forests Company (NFC). Many evictees told Oxfam how they were forcibly removed and have been left destitute, without enough food or money to send their children to school. There were court orders restraining evictions in force which named the company but eye-witnesses say that company workers took part in some of the evictions anyway. NFC denies that it was involved in any evictions.

“All our plantations were cut down – we lost the banana and cassava,” said Christine, a farmer in her mid-40s, who lived in Kiboga district before the Uganda land grab.  “We lost everything we had. The company’s casual laborers would attack us – they beat and threatened people. Even now they won’t let us back in to look for the things we left behind. I was threatened – they told me there were going to beat me if we didn’t leave.”

“The Uganda evictions clearly show how inadequate current safeguards are to ensure the protection of vulnerable people,” said Offenheiser.  “Thousands of people are suffering because they have been evicted without meaningful consultation or compensation.  The New Forests Company describes itself as an ethical company, adhering to international standards.  It must investigate these claims urgently and respect the needs and rights of poor communities affected by their investment.”

Oxfam is calling for remedies to the Ugandan mass eviction and the other large scale land grabs included in the report. Investors, governments and international organizations must also put a stop to land grabbing by fixing the current policies, regulations and business practices, which frequently fail to ensure that local people are consulted and treated fairly during negotiations. They should also ensure that all relevant international standards are respected including the World Bank's International Finance Corporation Performance Standards and the Forest Stewardship Council’s standards.

The US government should take a leadership role in curbing this growing phenomenon working closely with like-minded governments at the UN’s Committee on Food Security in Rome next month to push forward strong and broadly supported Voluntary Guidelines on land tenure.  Finally businesses and policy-makers should start to explore measures that the US government and industry can take to curb the worst abuses by US investors and US listed companies in affected countries, including measures to increase transparency around land deals.

“We cannot sit idly by as the livelihoods of the most vulnerable are bought up from underneath them without their permission,” said Offenheiser. “We must ensure investments are made responsibly so everyone can benefit.”

Notes to editors

Land acquisitions data is compiled by the Land Matrix Partnership, a coalition of academic, research and non-governmental organizations. The 500 million figure is based on information on land deals over 200 hectares from a whole range of different sources including government reports, academic research, company websites, media reports and the few contracts that are available. The coalition is currently cross checking the records of land deals it has identified. It is calling for increased transparency among companies and governments so that the true scale of the problem can be accurately understood.

The Land Matrix Partnership includes the International Land Coalition, the universities of Bern and Hamburg, the French research institute CIRAD, the German agency for technical cooperation, GIZ and Oxfam.

The Uganda evictions took place between 2006 and 2010. One High Court order was granted on 24 August 2009 and remained valid until 18 March 2010. The other was granted on 19 June 2009 and remained in force until 2 October 2009. Both were to restrain evictions by the company.

The New Forests Company stated that the majority of local residents had no legal right to the land, that they had left peacefully and that the process was the sole responsibility of the Ugandan National Forestry Authority.  It told Oxfam that it had brought jobs and amenities to local communities and that its activities had been approved by the Forestry Stewardship Council and International Finance Corporation.

Useful figures:

  • The global economy, which is expected to triple in size by 2050, will demand ever more scarce natural and agricultural resources
  • Palm oil has become the world’s most consumed edible oil and can be found in up to half of all packaged food and hygiene products. Production is expected to double by 2050, increasing the land area under cultivation worldwide by 60 million acres – six times the size of the Netherlands
  •  In Guatemala, eight percent of farmers account for 78% of the land in production. Of the smallholders who control the remaining land, just eight percent are women