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Agricultural Land Grabs Threaten Local Property Rights and Sustainable Development

With large-scale agricultural investments on the rise, the rights of local people must be protected.

Large-scale land acquisitions for agricultural use by both local and foreign commercial entities – often dubbed “land grabs” - are on the rise worldwide. Often touted as a form of economic development, these investments could have profound negative effects on the environment and rural livelihoods if transactions go through without the meaningful participation of affected peoples and due consideration for the many benefits they derive from nature.

Land provides the very platform on which sustainable lives and livelihoods are built. As a result, the land on which people build their homes and organize their communities is directly linked to their quality of life. Seventy-five percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and a majority of rural livelihoods depend primarily on natural resources to provide food, fresh water, and a healthy environment, among other benefits. Reliable access to land and the ability to make decisions about land use is therefore critical to rural economies.

The Importance of Recognizing Local Land Rights

In many developing countries, however, local peoples’ rights to land are not recognized or enforced by governments. Often times, governments make decisions about how land and natural resources will be used without consulting the people who depend on those resources for their livelihoods. People who rely on customary or traditional rights are particularly vulnerable to losing their land because there is little or no official documentation of their rights to protect them from their land being taken by someone else. This is a serious problem in Africa, where formal tenure covers only some 2 – 10% of all land.

The Risks and Opportunities of Large-Scale Agriculture Investments

Rising global demand for food and biofuel crops has driven a recent wave of large-scale agricultural investments in the Global South. Following the food price spike in 2007-08, media reports suggest that up to 56 million hectares of land were targeted for agriculture and forestry investments in less than one year, compared with an annual average cropland expansion of 1.9 million ha between 1990 and 2007.

Case studies have found that land transfers of hundreds and even thousands of hectares have been made without due consideration of existing rights or potential impacts on ecosystem services and the livelihoods they support. As a result, these investments may undermine sustainable development in countries already struggling to escape poverty.

In Ethiopia, for example, official government data in five of its nine regions indicate that a total area of at least 1.2 million ha – roughly 8.6% of the country’s cultivated area – were transferred to domestic and foreign commercial entities between 2005 and 2010. Although production data are scarce, media reports indicate that land acquired by Saudi Arabian companies in Ethiopia will be used to produce vegetables, flowers, and rice for export to nations in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is due to receive food aid for 5.7 million people in 2011 from the United Nations World Food Programme.

The size of individual deals can be staggering – in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a Chinese company has reportedly acquired rights from the central government to some 3 million ha of forest land across three provinces where indigenous people and other communities still rely on forests for their livelihood and culture. This transaction represents roughly two-thirds of the entire area in DRC that is potentially suitable for growing oil palm but not yet cultivated.

The scale of these transactions alone makes it even more imperative that the customary rights of local people be recognized and the impacts on existing land uses, especially forests, be considered. Large-scale land acquisitions that ignore customary rights not only risk undermining local livelihoods; illegitimate deals can slow investment implementation, damage company reputation, and even undermine regional stability – as demonstrated by the role that a high profile 1.3 million ha deal in Madagascar played in that country’s 2009 coup.

Governments often justify these transfers by citing their potential contribution to economic growth – however, any gains in national accounts (which to date appear few) risk being greatly outweighed by negative impacts on local livelihoods. Increased investment in agriculture can be used to promote sustainable development through the introduction of new technology and improved management of natural resources using an integrated planning approach. To achieve broad-based economic growth and increased standards of living, however, major agricultural investments must respect customary and traditional rights and mitigate or compensate negative impacts on the ecosystem services that support local livelihoods.

As food production will likely need to double in the next forty years to feed an additional two billion people by 2050, demand for agricultural land is likely to remain high. There is therefore an urgent need for governments, civil society, and the private sector to work together to improve the governance of agricultural investments in ways that are environmentally sustainable and accountable to local people.

WRI at the World Bank Land Conference

WRI is excited to be participating in this year’s Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, April 18-20, 2011, in Washington, DC. Below are several events that feature WRI staff and research:

  • April 19th 4:00-6:00 PM (panel): Monitoring Land Acquisitions from Different Angles: Is There Scope for Collaboration? - Manish Bapna, WRI Executive Vice President and Managing Director, will chair a panel addressing monitoring land acquisitions with regard to IFC performance standards, lessons learned on participatory monitoring of large land deals, and civil society responses to large-scale land acquisitions.

  • April 20, 8:00-9:30 AM (panel): Land Tenure in the Context of REDD+ and Climate Change - Fred Stolle, WRI Senior Associate, will present on “Shifting cropland expansion to degraded areas: Experience from Indonesia’s POTICO project.” This panel will also address country-level perspectives on making REDD operational, tenure issues at REDD project sites, and the large-scale acquisition of forest rights.

  • April 18-20th (exhibit): Focus on Africa: An Interactive Educational Tool on Land Tenure and Property Rights. The Focus on Africa website, a joint initiative of WRI and Landesa, with support by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to inform policymakers and development practitioners on critical land tenure issues. The tool provides land tenure experiences and lessons from six sub-Saharan African countries – Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda. Please visit the site - /property-rights-africa/.

For more information about WRI’s participation, please contact Emily Norford at or +1 (202) 729-7754.

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