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Land Rights And The Rush For Land

By Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula & Michael Taylor

21 December, 2011

Download the full report (PDF)

Download Summary (PDF)

Originated by the rising concerns expressed by many International Land Coalition (ILC) members in 2008, the Commercial Pressures on Land research project is intended to go beyond the large-scale land acquisitions phenomenon, focussing on the wider set of converging drivers for investment interest in land, such as rising food consumption and predicted long-term food prices rises; demand for feedstock for agrofuels; increasing commodity prices; carbon-trading mechanisms such as REDD; and rent seeking and speculation practices on land by recontextualising them within longer term trends.

The research project has been undertaken in collaboration with the populations concerned and civil society organizations of the countries affected, not only as recipients of the results, but as project leaders and participants in the implementation of the research projects. The Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project therefore builds on the strengths of International Land Coalition’s diverse membership through a collaborative effort and creates the opportunity for a high level and inclusive debate on a core issue of the twenty first century.

Through the partnership of a wide group of research institutions, civil society organizations and independent researchers, the current project is leading to the development of over 30 studies, including a final crosscutting analysis, that have benefited from the work done by two ILC members – Agter and CIRAD - which have respectively developed the initial conceptual framework and provided technical assistance to all the parties involved throughout the process.

The set of studies developed by the ILC is composed of country case studies as well as regional overviews and global thematic studies. The research reports are completed by 11 policy briefs providing key findings and recommendations with respect to some of the key challenges posed by the current phenomenon.

From the 74-page report: (both the summary and the entire report can be downloaded from the website)


The International Land Coalition (ILC) was established by civil society and multilateral organisations who were convinced that secure access to land, water, and other natural resources is central to the ability of women and men to get out of, and stay out of, hunger and poverty.

In 2008, at the same time as the food price crisis pushed the number of hungry people over the one billion mark, ILC launched a global research project to better understand the implications of the growing wave of international large-scale investments in land. Smallholder producers have always faced competition for the land on which their livelihoods depend. It is evident, however, that the competition for land is becoming increasingly global and increasingly unequal.

This report represents the culmination of a collaboration with 40 partners, ranging from NGOs in affected regions, whose perspectives and voices are closest to most affected land users, to international research institutes. The process enabled organisations with little previous experience in undertaking such research projects, but with much to contribute, to participate in the global study and to have their voices heard. ILC believes that in an era of increasingly globalised land use and governance, it is more important than ever that the voices and interests of all stakeholders – and in particular those of local land users – are represented in the search for solutions to achieve equitable and secure access to land.

I am also pleased that some of the leading thinkers on land trends from different parts of the globe have joined us as co-authors and contributing authors to synthesise this huge body of research and produce this report. The implications of choices on how land and natural resources should be used, and for whom, are stark. In an increasingly resource-constrained and polarised world, choices made today on land use, access, and ownership will shape the economies, societies, and opportunities of tomorrow’s generations, and thus need to be carefully considered.

Madiodio Niasse
Director, International Land Coalition Secretariat

Table of Contents


Chapter One: Introduction
Commercial pressures on land: a new era
The Commercial Pressures on Land research project
The International Land Coalition
This report

Chapter Two: Features, triggers, and drivers of the global rush for land
The scale and pace of the land rush
Who is acquiring land?
Where are the main targets of acquisition?
What is driving the land rush?
Demand for food
Demand for biofuels
Demand for timber
Demand for other raw materials
Industrial development
Carbon markets

Chapter Three: Impacts
Returns for land acquirers
Government revenues
Access to land for local populations
Access to water
Access to adequate housing
Compensation for communities
Job creation
Opportunities for local smallholder producers
Impacts on women
Environmental impacts

Chapter Four: Factors shaping the land rush
Weak democratic governance
Land governance that fails the rural poor
Economic governance that fails the rural poor
The sidelining of smallholder agriculture
Conclusions: are we reaching a tipping point?

Chapter Five: Conclusions and policy considerations
The findings of this report
Policy considerations: halting the accelerated disenfranchisement of the rural poor
Implications for members of ILC
Land at the crossroads: time to change direction

Key Findings:
The conclusions of this report are based on case studies that provide indicative evidence of local and national realities, and on the ongoing global monitoring of large-scale land deals for which data are subject to a continuous process of veri!cation. But while research and monitoring need to continue, it is important to draw some conclusions and policy implications from the evidence we have already. Key messages can be stated as follows:

>> High global demand for land is likely to continue for the long term, although the steep increase witnessed between 2005 and 2008 may level off.

>> The land and resource rights and livelihoods of rural communities are being put in jeopardy by the prevailing model of large-scale land acquisition. There is little in the findings to suggest that the term “land grabbing” is not widely deserved.

>> The poor are bearing disproportionate costs, but reaping few benefits, because of poor governance, including the weak protection of the resource rights of the poor, corrupt and unaccountable decisionmaking, the sidelining of their rights within trade regimes, and the policy neglect of smallholder agriculture. Women are particularly vulnerable.

>> The weak legal protection of resources held under customary tenure makes local people vulnerable to dispossession as governments make land available for private acquisition. Lands and resources which they traditionally own and use in common are especially vulnerable to loss.

>> Insufficient action is being taken by host governments to limit the further impoverishment of rural communities that may be expected from the “land rush”. Nor is international law being properly put to work in service of this requirement.

>> The challenge is to stop dispossession and land allocations that do not serve a genuine public interest, to legally recognise the rights of the rural poor, and to steer towards more equitable models that give a key role to existing land users.

From Chapter 2:

...Who is acquiring land?

The term “investors” is commonly used as a catch-all term for economic actors engaged in acquiring land as part of the current land rush. However, this usage is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the evidence suggests that many land acquisitions do not initially involve high levels of investment, being either speculative or involving production only on a small proportion of the land acquired. It is important to distinguish between such acquisitions and productive investment in agriculture and other land-based sectors. Secondly, the use of the term “investors” to mean foreign or elite national actors forgets the fact that the world’s foremost investors in land and agriculture are the 500 million smallholder households who invest time and money in food production and the maintenance and improvement of agricultural systems. In this report, we have therefore referred to “land acquisitions” rather than “investments in land”, and to “land acquirers” rather than “investors”, where it is not possible to distinguish investors from speculators. “Acquisition” is taken to refer to purchase, lease, or concession.

In later chapters, we also make an important distinction between “land acquisitions” and “investments” in emphasising that external investment can happen without acquiring land, and in fact that the best forms of investment are likely to be those that are not based on a model of land acquisition.

While media reports have emphasised the role of foreigners as land acquirers, national elites are also key players. Although the land areas involved in individual transactions may be smaller, the cumulative effect is significant. This has been illustrated in some earlier quantitative inventories (Cotula et al. 2009; Deininger et al. 2010) and also noted in some of the ILC case studies (O’Brien 2011; Calvan and Ablola 2011). However, national actors often fall below the radar of global-level studies because they are seldom regulated or facilitated by public agencies, and because individual transactions tend to be smaller (Hilhorst et al. 2011).

Moreover, the evidence emerging from the case studies suggests that the surge in foreign interest in land is fuelling land acquisitions by nationals; that host country companies offer their services to foreign enterprises (as documented in Madagascar by Andrianirina, Ratsialonana et al. 2011); that nationals may acquire land with a view to then entering into an agreement with a foreign company; and that national actors may serve as intermediaries between a foreign company and the local population. These actors usually belong to established elite groups, at local or national levels. Their financial, economic, and often political connections enable them to establish control over natural resources, and to position themselves at the interface with national or international companies.

Much public attention has been paid to acquisitions from emerging economies, including China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. In many cases such acquisitions have a substantial food security motive on the part of the home country. However, the Land Matrix data show that private acquirers motivated by profit are also prominent among the top investors. These originate from traditional investor countries, as well as emerging economies such as Brazil and South Africa...

...What is driving the land rush?

Is the land rush a short-lived phenomenon, or is it here to stay? In seeking to answer this question, it is helpful to differentiate between what we may call “triggers” and “drivers” of the phenomenon. The sudden rush for farmland that appeared to peak in 2009 was triggered primarily by the food price crisis of 2007 and 2008. The immediate causes of the food price crisis have been analysed in other studies (Headley and Fan 2008; Piesse and Thirtle 2009). Most commentators agree that the crisis was sparked by a convergence of events that included reduced grain stocks and a jump in oil prices that prompted a diversion of some food stocks to biofuels. As these were specific events, surges in cereal and basic commodity prices did not hold and prices fell significantly during the second half of 2008, although not to previous levels.

Nevertheless, the food crisis marked a turning point. No longer were some food-importing countries willing for their national food security to depend upon unpredictable world markets. It also provoked expectations that after two decades of stagnation, food prices would now rise over the longer term. This has so far proved correct, and food prices have again hit new highs in 2011.

Expectations of rising prices reflect longer-term trends that can be called the drivers of the rush for land. The food price crisis brought to attention trends of rising commodity prices that had been under way since 2000 (Deininger et al. 2010). Underlying these trends are the facts of a growing world population and, in particular, rising levels of consumption by the world’s growing middle classes. By 2050 the world will need and consume 70% more food than is consumed today (Ibid.).

However, demand for food is not the only driver of the land rush. Cross-referenced data from the Land Matrix show that in fact the highest demand for land comes from biofuel production, comprising 40% of the area acquired where the commodity is known. In comparison, 25% of cross-referenced deals are for the production of food crops, 3% for livestock production, and 5% for other nonfood crops. Farm production therefore accounts for 73% of cross-referenced acquisitions, while forestry and carbon sequestration, mineral extraction, industry, and tourism account for a combined 27% of land acquired. The relatively high proportion of land being acquired for biofuels is particularly striking, considering the displacement of real or potential food production on these lands. This also reflects the expected profitability of biofuels, despite that fact that they may be a more unpredictable investment, whose profitability may shift significantly in response to changes in subsidies or new technology....

Related Ecologist article by Laura Tuffrey: Biofuels not food the biggest driver of 'land grabbing' deals, says report

'Land grab' report highlights growing interest from speculators in ‘flex’ crops like soya, palm oil and sugarcane that can be used for biofuels or food

The amount of land acquired for biofuels globally is far higher than previously thought, according to one of the most comprehensive assessments yet by the International Land Coalition (ILC).

Biofuels are now the major driver for large-scale purchases of farmland or ‘land grabbing’ in the global south, with almost 53 per cent of the 71 million hectares cross-referenced in the report, being used for biofuels.

In Africa, the impact of biofuels was even stronger with 66 per cent of land purchases used for biofuels. Food was next highest at 15 per cent.

This is far higher than a World Bank’s analysis last year that just 21 per cent of global land grab deals conducted between 2008-9 were being used for biofuels.

Europe's biofuel demand

Campaigners say ‘land grabbing’ is being driven by EU targets to source 10 per cent of all transport fuels for buses and cars from biofuels rather than conventional fossil fuels by 2020.

‘These findings suggest that the scale of land-grabbing for biofuel production is far worse than previously imagined,’ Robbie Blake of Friends of the Earth Europe. ‘Europe’s appetite for land is already unsustainable, reaching well beyond its borders, with devastating social and environmental impacts.’

The report, ‘Land Rights and the Rush for Land’, involved the collaboration of over 40 different organisations in the research process – the biggest study to date. It says rural livelihoods have been put in jeopardy by the land grabbing deals, with the promise of jobs not, as yet, materialising.




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