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Land Grab: win-win or win-lose?

Corporate self-regulation or total system change?

Following the recent growing interest in land acquisition and investment in land around the world for which there are no binding regulations and also, apparently, no agreement by private industry as to whether or how to adopt voluntary self-regulation, the World Bank with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Institute for Food and Development, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) convened a meeting to discuss this issue. Titled 'Principles for responsible agricultural investment that respects rights, livelihoods and resources' the discussion notes from the September/October 2009 meeting were published in January.

A set of seven principles was drawn up highlighting the main risks, which were perceived to be displacement of populations and undermining or negating existing rights. The first two principles were concerned mainly with not jeopardising existing land rights and ensuring that food security would not be threatened in the targeted areas.

Two more principles were focussed on transparency at all stages of the process when accessing land or other resources, to ensure that all stakeholders would be kept within the information loop. Consultation and participation were to be such that all those materially affected should be consulted and agreements from consultations would be recorded and enforced.

The remaining principles were concerned with 'responsible' investing, respect for rule of law, use of industry best practice and to balance returns for shareholders with significant positive outcomes for the host nation. Both social and environmental sustainability were considered important, with the need for environmental impact studies written in and the recognition that there should be no negative impacts on local populations.

In conclusion it was noted that agreement had been reached that a set of principles was necessary and that the seven drawn up were the right ones.

Response by UN Special Rapporteur
This proposed voluntary code was responded to on 26 April at a high level session of UNCTAD and the Commission on Investment Enterprise and Development in Geneva by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. He is independent of any government or organisation and reports to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. His response was lengthy and apprehensive especially with regard to item five on the agenda – Investment in the agricultural sector with a view to building productive capacities – concerning the seven principles above. 'I am worried,' he began before going on to expound his many reasons. In a number of areas he felt that the focus was wrong, that it should be on rural development and increased incomes, not on boosting production, He referred to the 'Green Revolution' of the 1970s when food production increased per capita by 9 percent in South Asia 1970-1990 but the increase of hungry people was also 9 percent and in South America in the same period food production per capita increased 8 percent but the hungry increased by 19 percent.

Another concern was that with agricultural investment there was a tendency to antagonise groups of farmers who are involved in different kinds of farming, especially the small land owners who, although generally more productive, can in no way compete with the bigger mechanised farms. A further worry came from knowledge of earlier projects when land rights had been violated in investments in plantations for fuel crops, dams, tourism and large scale infrastructure projects.

His conclusion: 'We cannot afford more dispossessed, greater inequalities, more leaving the land because it has become unviable – pastoralists to lose access to grazing, fishers cut off from their fishing grounds, forest destruction or fencing in for carbon sequestration.'

The World Bank's and their associates' statement and principles all sound quite reasonable if we are able to lay aside cynicism for a fleeting moment. However, if it is as trustworthy and dependable as it appears to be – transparent, fair, considerate of all parties etc etc – why does Olivier De Schutter feel the need to report that he is worried and to further expand on the principles and explain where they can go wrong? Remember the original principles were an attempt to provide merely a voluntary code to which De Schutter was compelled to call for added regulation or more careful wording, discerning the probability of win-lose scenarios.

Note there was no discussion of binding the principles in law, merely a suggestion that respecting any current laws would be favourable. The very fact that it is considered necessary to implement a (voluntary) code of conduct implies that previously (and currently as this code of conduct has not yet been agreed) dubious practices have been rife. We have to conclude that it is not the need for voluntary or mandatory regulations to protect what may be vulnerable, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, that are required but the removal of each and every agent that causes these vulnerabilities.

Few people are naïve enough in the 21st century to believe that investor agencies, corporate, financial or whatever, are altruistic in their dealings with the (mostly) developing countries being discussed in their absence. We recognise that their first consideration will be the timescale of the profit potential. Maybe the following response can throw some light onto a better way to deal with this matter if we are to be serious about focussing on benefits rather than profits. The way to make it possible for all possible third parties to benefit materially in exchange for a signature is to eliminate the profit motive. This is also the sure fire way to ensure that any outside agencies are there to assist positively rather than to profit personally. The guarantee that all communities around the world will be empowered to organise their own affairs according to their own self-determined aspirations will come from the rejection of the capitalist system in favour of a world socialist system; from the democratic decision of a majority world population desirous of a world of free association and access.

(World Bank guidelines and De Schutter's response originally sourced from www.farmlandgrab.org)

JANET SURMAN