OPINION: Stopping land and policy grabs in the shadow of COVID-19

by Lorenzo Cotula | International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Wednesday, 27 May 2020 20:25 GMT

Supporters of the indigenous Wet'suwet'en Nation's hereditary chiefs block access to the Port of Vancouver as part of protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Jennifer Gauthier

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Elites and corporations appear to be using the pandemic as a cover to seize land and push through contested developments

Lorenzo Cotula is principal researcher on law and sustainable development at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

Reports suggest the COVID-19 fallout is providing opportunities for elites to seize lands and rewrite regulations.

Throughout history, crises have enabled those with more information, resources and influence to renegotiate socio-political relations and settle old scores. A growing number of reports about land governance in the time of COVID-19 suggest that national elites in several countries are using the reduced space for oversight and accountability as an opportunity to seize lands.

Some companies and governments are pressing on with local ‘consultations’ to secure approval for land-based projects during a public health and economic crisis that makes it difficult for people to meaningfully engage.

Systemic trends and policy grabs

These developments could reflect systemic trends rather than isolated incidents. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, recently expressed serious concerns about the way states of emergency are further marginalising indigenous communities and militarising their territories, while governments and companies force through agribusiness, mining and infrastructure megaprojects on ancestral lands.

In addition, space for dissent is shrinking in many contexts. Global Witness reported that threats and attacks against land rights defenders have accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis, citing evidence from Colombia, Niger, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Some governments appear to be using the reduced public scrutiny to fast-track legislative reforms – establishing ‘policy grabs’ that can reshape regulation for years to come. In Brazil, the environment minister called for environmental deregulation while the pandemic distracts public attention.

If action is not taken, longstanding problems will get worse and hard-fought gains will be reversed.

Activists are pushing back

Over the years, activists have mobilised to defend rights in the face of commercial pressures, achieving important wins in countries such as Sierra Leone. But the pandemic makes this work more difficult because communities, campaigners and journalists face restrictions on travel and gatherings.

In spite of this, advocacy continues around the world. In Thailand, for example, protesters succeeded in getting a public hearing on the creation of a special economic zone postponed because of community concerns about its impact on the environment and local livelihoods.

And in Brazil, environmentalists and parliamentarians delayed voting on a land bill that would make it possible for commercial farmers who encroached into Amazon forestlands to get title deeds.  

Building alliances, local to global

There is a need for international action to keep a watch on what is happening and support local initiatives. This includes documenting developments as they unfold, linking up initiatives in different places and, where necessary, assisting governments and activists in providing effective responses.

After the 2008 food price hikes prompted a surge in agribusiness plantation deals in the Global South, local-to-global alliances were essential to track developments, including through open-source platforms such as Land Matrix and a range of collaborative action-research initiatives such as by IIED. They also helped challenge abuses and advance development that places local producers centre-stage.

In the longer term, securing land rights is key to post-COVID economic recovery. In many agrarian societies, land supports rural livelihoods, provides a safety net and sustains social identity. We need effective responses now to protect land rights and lay the foundations for a just recovery after the pandemic.