Serious the charges may be, but in the world of large-scale land acquisitions, they are not that uncommon.
In many of the countries involved, legally-filed titles to the land do not exist in rural areas. Traditionally, people establish ownership of the land by working the soil and planting trees, James Otto Jr. of the Sustainable Development Initiative, a Liberian not-for-profit, told 100Reporters. With the rising market for arable land, though, governments are increasingly claiming ownership of land, and selling the rights to foreign investors for little money.
Olivier de Schutter, a law professor who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said that as the value of land increases, so does the incentive for governments to push off small farmers.
“Those cultivating the land are just considered tolerated on the land,” de Schutter said. “But once it’s considered to have value, the people who have been working it are priced out. And the state pushes people away to give land to these investors.”
“Neither the governments that cede land, nor the companies that are buying the rights, have an interest in transparency,” he added. “Rather they have an interest in hiding this from parliaments, the public, and local communities that are affected.”
Strikingly, the World Bank report, entitled “Rising Interest in Global Land Acquisition,” found that foreign investors appeared most interested in negotiating deals in countries with the weakest protections for existing small farmers. The tendency “increases the risk that investors acquire the land essentially for free and in neglect of local rights,” the study found.
The bank’s 2010 review noted that negotiations with foreign investors over large-scale land acquisition typically sidelined local populations and did little or nothing to improve access to food for poor people in the host nations.
“Consultation with local right holders is in many cases superficial, with a lack of prior information and no written agreements that would clearly specify different parties’ responsibilities, and thus could be used to provide a basis for redress in case agreements are not adhered to,” the September 2010 report found. “Land boundaries (and rights) are often ill-defined, and environmental and social safeguards can be neglected.”
Governments were typically ill-equipped to monitor investor compliance with agreements. “But instead of relying on publicity of relevant documents and independent third-party verification, agreements are surrounded by an air of secrecy that makes public reporting and monitoring near impossible,” the report said.
As a result, “many investments,” the survey concluded, “failed to live up to expectations and, instead of generating sustainable benefits, contributed to asset loss and left local people worse off than they would have been without the investment. In fact, even though an effort was made to cover a wide spectrum of situations, case studies confirm that in many cases benefits were lower than anticipated or did not materialize at all.”