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Land grabs: Explaining the issue is no simple matter

by Oxfam | October 17, 2012

I’m thrilled with the reaction to the launch of our campaign to stop land grabs. It has sparked great discussions on social media and good coverage in the press. Loads of interest from the public is in no small way due to the fabulous commitment of our supporters to raise awareness and encourage people to take action.

While it’s easy to sympathize with the victims of land grabs, explaining the issue is no simple matter. Let me try to clarify some key concepts, especially the difference between land acquisitions and land grabs.

Let’s be clear: all land investments are not land grabs. Land grabs are land investments that have gone terribly wrong.

When Oxfam speaks of large-scale land acquisitions (also known as land investments or land deals) we mean the buying or leasing of more than 200 hectares of land. That size is not huge in Canada, but it is larger than the average land holding in all but three countries in the world.

Land grabs occur when investors do not consult local people before buying up the land they live on and do not provide them with fair compensation. Land grabs usually happen in secrecy, and often involve mass evictions of poor families, sometimes violently. Land grabs involve human rights violations, and flout the principle of free, prior and informed consent.

Irrespective of whether or not local people have formal land titles, they should always have a say in what happens – their lives and livelihoods often depend on it – and they should be compensated for losses.

When we speak of the global land rush, we mean the rapidly accelerating global trend of foreign investors acquiring large tracts of land in developing countries. Certainly not all the land acquisitions that make up this global land rush are land grabs, but the scale and pace of the trend is alarming in any case.

At a time when 870 million people continue to go to bed hungry each night, transferring large tracts of land from local communities to foreign investors can actually make the problem worse. Especially when we know that two thirds of all large-scale land acquisitions are intended to produce fuel instead of food.

The poor rural communities where Oxfam works do need investment. In fact, all 500 million small farms that feed almost two billion people could use things like roads, storage facilities and improved access to credit. Women farmers in particular need investments in extension services that are tailored to their needs, and for the private sector to increase its sourcing from women suppliers.

But they don’t need investment that takes away their land. Investment in poor communities is most beneficial when it strengthens and upholds the rights to land and related resources of the most vulnerable local people, especially women. A recent Oxfam paper lays out some of our thoughts on what good private investment in agriculture would look like.

The issues surrounding land acquisitions, land grabs and the global land rush are complex. But one thing is simple: the rights of local communities should always be respected, and investments should never lead to more hunger and poverty.

– Lauren Ravon, Policy Advisor, Oxfam Canada
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