WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A global scramble for land supported by governments and development banks is forcing small farmers off their holdings, worsening hunger and poverty for millions of people in developing countries, according to a new report.
ActionAid International called for new policies that focus investment on smallholder farming and sustainable agriculture rather than agri-business as a way to address food insecurity, and for governments to demonstrate zero-tolerance for land grabbing.
In its Great Land Heist report released this week, the anti-poverty group said an array of public and private incentives - adopted in the wake of food shortages in 2007 and 2008 by the Group of 20 leading industrialised and developing nations, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank - have encouraged land grabbing by investors.
“Allowing land to become vehicles for wealthy corporations and individuals to become richer while pushing vulnerable rural people into poverty and hunger is unjust, unwise and unethical,” it said in the report.
The World Bank said it shares the concerns raised by ActionAid about the risks associated with large-scale land acquisitions and it works to help governments improve land governance.
"The Bank Group does not support speculative land investments or acquisitions which take advantage of weak institutions in developing countries or which disregard principles of responsible agricultural investment," it said
Since 2000, an area larger than the larger than the size of Germany has transferred hands in large-scale land deals as investors saw pending food shortages and a rising world population.
Africa has seen 41 percent of those deals and Southeast Asia 32 percent, and the top three countries from which investors came were the United States, the United Kingdom and Malaysia, according to Land Matrix, which documents transactions larger than 200 hectares.
When these deals are conducted without the full and informed consent of the land users, ActionAid described them as land grabs.
Government policies that incentivise land grabbing include tax and tariff breaks for big land investments; central government sales directly to investors without the state adequately checking usage rights and whether local people rely on the resources for survival; donor-backed agricultural investment funds that finance large-scale acquisitions for agribusiness; and technical and policy support from the World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions, it said.
The impact can be devastating, the report said. It cited Addax Bioenergy Ltd’s sugar cane to ethanol project in Sierra Leone, which ActionAid said has affected 13,000 people, increasing hunger and lowering income levels. The project was backed by European countries and the Africa Development Bank.
While the United Nations’ Committee on Food Security guidelines lay out principles for land rights and how investors should obtain prior consent from the land users, ActionAid said all too often this does not occur and people are forcibly removed from land they have farmed, fished or hunted on for generations.
Getting consent and adequately compensating land users often is complicated by a mosaic of land tenure systems. Tribal land rights, customary practices and private ownership and leases overlap and are unrecorded. ActionAid said there is a disturbing pattern of investors targeting countries where governance is weak. It cited a 2013 Oxfam study that found of the 56 countries where large-scale land deals had occurred between 2000 and 2011, 78 percent were poorly governed, based on World Bank indicators.
If policymakers want to address extreme poverty among the 1.4 billion people who live on less than $1.25 a day mostly in rural areas, research shows investing in smallholder farming brings better returns, the report said. United Nations Environment Program has found that increasing agricultural output per capita by 1 percent causes poverty to decline five times more than by increasing output 1 percent in other GDP sectors, it said.