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A new film from the excellent Why Poverty series focusing on ‘The great land rush’ is a fascinating look at the range of perspectives, interests, hopes and fears, power relations and money that accompany a large-scale land acquisition in the developing world – in this case an enormous sugar plantation in Mali’s most arable region.

The picture is complex because the issue of land rights and land acquisition is in no way clear cut. On the one hand, as a potential source of investment in agriculture the benefits of land deals merit study. Agricultural investment – from private sources as well as public – is to be welcomed: growth in small-scale agriculture benefits poor people twice as much as as growth in other sectors. When private investment is done well, it can act as a catalyst for innovation, job creation and inclusive growth.

But investment is not acceptable at any cost. Where investment ignores or undermines rights to land and other resources, it serves to reinforce the power relations that keep people poor. As acquisition of large tracts of land gathers pace, evidence is mounting that communities pay an unacceptably high price. The World Bank recently reported“Many investments […] 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.”

This is a significant and growing issue. Land eight times the size of the UK was sold off globally in the last decade. But between mid-2008 and 2009 reported agricultural land deals by foreign investors in developing countries tripled as food prices rocketed. With food prices spiking again for the third time in four years, interest in land is likely to accelerate as rich countries try to secure their food supplies and investors see land as a good long-term bet.

While many analysts claim that there is plenty of empty land crying out to be ploughed up, a closer look shows that this is simply not true. The World Bank acknowledges that very little, if any, of the land classified as ‘available’ is free of existing claims, and much of the land being acquired was previously used for small-scale farming. Add to this the fact that most land deals happen in countries with the weakest protection of rural land rights and it starts to become clear that large-scale land acquisitions and abuse of land rights go together all too often.

As well as the manner of the land deal, it is often also questionable whether such deals are in the interests of sustainable development and food security. The land acquired in the past decade has the potential to feed a billion people, equivalent to the number of people who go to bed hungry each night. Two-thirds of agricultural land deals by foreign investors are in countries with a serious hunger problem. And yet, perversely, much of this land is left idle. Of those who do intend to use the land they acquire, two-thirds intend to export everything they produce rather than make it available on local markets where it is desperately needed. Families are being forced from their homes and left without land to grow food to eat and make a living, even as food prices rocket.

The level of risk associated with large-scale land acquisitions is unacceptable, and the potential consequences for people’s livelihoods irreversible. The international community must take the time to agree a response and an approach to land. Key amongst the international players who need to act is the World Bank Group itself – as a standard setter for other investors, and as an investor itself. Oxfam is calling on the bank to freeze its financing of land deals to provide the space to implement reforms and to send a clear signal to investors and governments that the risks associated with large-scale land deals are unacceptable.

It is encouraging to see land rights feature in the Prime Ministers’ articulation of the foundations, or golden thread, of development. Next years’ G8 summit and the hunger summit preceding it are key opportunities for the UK to move this agenda forward. We have now reached a point where, in poor countries, foreign investors have been buying up an area of land the size of London every six days. There is little time to lose.

Katy Wright is Oxfam‘s UK Advocacy and Parliamentary Officer. 

Follow Katy on Twitter: @katywright


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