Since the first huge spike in global food prices back in 2007-2008, companies and foreign governments have acquired or signed long term leases for land in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Many of these transactions were negotiated quickly and in secrecy. And while many observers would describe much of the land exchanged in these deals as “undeveloped,” the fact is that local communities often depend on it for subsistence farming or pastoral use. Such massive and rapid changes in ownership and title are also about water rights as much as the right to equitable use of pastures and forests. This surge in “land grabbing” could become one of the most socially disruptive trends in history.
The result is a looming human rights problem for businesses, particularly food companies, as companies will struggle to remain viable and feed an increasingly hungry and thirsty world. Labels such “fair trade” have become more mainstream as more consumers become aware of the human cost involved in growing coveted food products such as chocolate and coffee. The controversy over conflict minerals and precious metals has nudged some companies to become more transparent about where they source such hard-to-find materials. So in the coming decade, could “land grab free” become a new seal of approval?
Yesterday a panel at World Water Week discussed how these land acquisitions, or “land grabbing,” tie to food security and water rights. Jamie Skinner of the International Institute for Environment and Development described this increase in land purchases as occurring under a climate of secrecy. In many of the nations where these land swaps have taken place, according to Skinner, the government had technically owned the land but it had remained open for use to local people who had long depended on it. The customary land and water rights that were not codified under updated legal systems, have now been usurped by contracts that attorneys and bureaucrats negotiated under modern law. Despite descriptions of such land as “empty,” much of this land is under use, and local people are dependent on it for farming, firewood or animal husbandry. Even more distressing for fragile local communities, the rights to water have been signed away for the next several decades.
But are all of these transactions unfair “land swapping” that benefit only large companies? Taysir Al-Ghanem of Qatar’s National Food Security Program claimed that his country’s leases of agricultural land has been more about benefitting the countries via such transactions. Al-Ghanem pointed to an investment in a poultry producing company in Brazil where production rose from 1 million eggs a year to 20 million. Those eggs are sold in Brazil and are just one example of how proper investment and management can actually boost food security. Sierra Leone’s Ali Badara Mansaray was defensive about the land deals occurring in his country, and claimed that a commercialization program in his country has the potential to benefit up to 3.5 million farmers. Mansaray’s attack on civil societies and the media, however, raised more eyebrows than nods of agreement in the audience.
Transnational Institute’s Jennifer Franco pointed out the human cost of these land swaps, and her descriptions of the effects on local communities should serve as a warning to businesses involved in these gargantuan land deals. This land, said Franco, is not “empty” or “unusable,” but in fact serves a vital need for the locals who had access to this land for years. The switch to private investors is especially disastrous for women who are then deprived of such land, on which they had depended to provide for their families.
The takeaway for businesses, whether they are in food processing, mining or forestry is that to ignore the human aspect of these transactions will expose them to a bevy of risks. These deals have been completed and most likely there is no going back, but in this age of social media and demands for greater transparency, skeptical consumers will only hear more stories about the effects these land transactions, or land swapping, will impose on local populations as well as the environment and water rights. For companies that already struggle with their supply chains, the added complexity of not only identifying their suppliers but the land they use will present additional challenges. But such disclosure is the only option; to deny that products have their origins in land leased or purchased under dubious circumstances will only push discerning consumers away. The “fair use” or “land grab free” labels could find their way on food and other products in the coming decade.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Disclosure: PepsiCo covered the cost of Leon Kaye’s attendance at World Water Week.
Photo of rural Sierra Leone courtesy Wikipedia.