Regulating landgrabbing?

26 December 2010

Calls for codes of conduct for landgrabbing not only fail to tackle the main drivers of land dispossession but also legitimise a new wave of land enclosures that will affect many vulnerable rural communities.

‘Land grab’ is the catch-phrase for the explosion of (trans)national commercial land transactions currently revolving mainly around the production and export of food and biofuels. Initially deployed by activist groups opposed to such transactions, the meaning of the phrase has been slowly eroding as it gets absorbed into mainstream development currents that see the global land rush as fertile ground for ‘win-win’ development schemes.

What were once reviled as ‘land grabs’, are now increasingly seen as ‘large-scale land investments’. Telling signs of this conceptual drift are found in recent high-profile calls for a ‘code of conduct for landgrabbing’ and ‘principles for responsible landgrabbing’. Together they signal a shift in the discourse from alarm to acceptance of land grabbing.

Such calls arise out of an optimistic belief that a global rush for land can and ought to be taken as an opportunity for rural development. Multiple stakeholders should unite around a set of basic ‘good practice’-type principles (commonly referred to as the ‘Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investments’ or ‘PRAI’). This would lay the foundation for an international ‘Code of Conduct’ (CoC) to better govern the transactions.

The arguably pragmatic logic behind this vision is illustrated by International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) version of it, unveiled in late 2009 and framed as ‘making virtue out of necessity’. The underlying entrepreneurial spirit is revealed in the World Bank’s September 2010 (Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits?) land grab report with its concluding section entitled ‘Moving from Challenge to Opportunity’ (World Bank, 2010: 93).

Only winners; no losers?

Predictably, the idea has caught on amongst governments, development aid organisations, research outfits and think-tanks. It is now widely believed that a CoC-PRAI scheme will lead to so-called ‘win-win’ development outcomes. But surely any scheme that guarantees only winners and no losers deserves our scepticism and a closer look.

Proponents of CoC-PRAI argue that more large-scale investments, especially when these involve smallholders through a variety of joint venture arrangements, are seen as the main solution to persistent (rural) poverty. The benefits are expected to be the following: Creation of farm/off-farm job employment, the boosting of smallholder incomes, the transfer of needed technology, an increase in food production, the building-up of rural infrastructure, improved access to basic services, and the opening up of export opportunities. There are several parts to the argument.

The theory and flaws of 'responsible landgrabbing' advocates

First, proponents of CoC-PRAI resurrect an old belief in the need for better land management as a way to bring order out of chaos when it comes to land issues and conflicts. But as we will later show the kind of land management envisioned has not proven to be better for the world’s rural population where poverty is most concentrated, nor is it uncontested. In fact, over the past decade or more, so much evidence and resistance has already been built up against the kind of land management envisioned in CoC-PRAI, that it begins to look suspiciously like the proverbial back door (e.g. we couldn’t get it in the front door, so let’s try the back).

Second, those in favour of CoC-PRAI draw on new revelations based on high-tech satellite imagery of the existence of so-called ‘reserve agricultural land’ – a vast global reserve of land ready to be harnessed for ‘rural development’ (or at least their version of it). The World Bank (2010) estimates the existence of a maximum of 1.7 billion ha of ‘suitable non-cropped, non-protected’ land, and a minimum of 445 million ha of ‘non-forested, non-protected, and populated with less than 25 persons per square kilometer’. The latter is equivalent to one-third of the currently cropped land of 1.5 billion ha. This claim about the existence of an heretofore untapped wealth of reserve agricultural land goes even further – to include an insistence on how such land could be tapped without harming existing food production or local land rights, and, with the added virtues of rehabilitating ‘degraded’ land and contributing to renewable energy supplies in the process. But this too is a faulty claim.

Third, CoC-PRAI proponents stress the need to recognise the potentially harmful social and environmental impacts – reconceptualised as ‘risks’ – of new large-scale investments in agriculture. These include: Neglect of land users, short-term speculation, absence of consultation, corruption, environmental harm, violent conflict over land rights, polarisation and instability, undermining food security and loss of livelihoods, and failure to keep promises (local jobs, facilities, compensation) (World Bank 2010).

While acknowledging land grabbing’s harmful effects is essential; reframing them as ‘risks’ is subterfuge. Once harmful social and environmental impacts are understood as ‘risks’ (in effect mere ‘side-effects’ of an essentially beneficial ‘cure’), they can then be ‘managed’. Proper risk-management, we are told, is what makes achieving the ‘larger good’ of rural development possible. Great. But in practice who gets to decide which larger good is – or is not – worth the risk? And who gets to decide which risks are worth taking or not? In the end, the envisioned large-scale investments are not seen as involving direct impacts that are so severe and unjust that they call into question the very validity of the ‘cure’ itself – e.g., the land deals themselves or the development model being pursued through this type of foreign direct investment.

For those who still choose to encourage foreign direct investment in the form of big land deals, one element of successful risk avoidance or management involves ensuring the proper policy environment in the host countries. The World Bank and IFPRI approach the larger policy environment in similar ways (see Table 1 below).

Table 1: Principles For Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI)

  • 1. Respecting land and resource rights. Existing rights to land and associated natural resources are recognized and respected.
  • 2. Ensuring food security. Investments do not jeopardize food security but strengthen it.
  • 3. Ensuring transparency, good governance, and a proper enabling environment. Processes for acquiring land and other resources and then making associated investments are transparent and monitored, ensuring the accountability of all stakeholders within a proper legal, regulatory, and business environment.
  • 4. Consultation and participation. All those materially affected are consulted, and the agreements from consultations are recorded and enforced.
  • 5. Responsible agro-investing. Investors ensure that projects respect the rule of law, reflect industry best practice, are economically viable, and result in durable shared value.
  • 6. Social sustainability. Investments generate desirable social and distributional impacts and do not increase vulnerability.
  • 7. Environmental sustainability. Environmental impacts of a project are quantified and measures are taken to encourage sustainable resource use while minimizing and mitigating the risk and magnitude of negative impacts. 

(World Bank 2010: X).


The World Bank’s September 2010 formulation is very similar to IFPRI’s and an earlier joint formulation by the World Bank, FAO, IFAD and UNCTAD (2010): (i) rights recognition, (ii) voluntary transfers, (iii) transparency, (iv) technical and economic viability, and (v) environmental and social sustainability (World Bank 2010: xx-xxi).

In sum, for advocates of CoC-PRAI a beneficial policy environment would include:

  • (i) well-defined land rights and authorities, with an emphasis on a private property rights system;
  • (ii) clear identification of land that is available and clear mechanisms for transfer of public land rights;
  • (iii) improved investment climates through rule of law and contract security;
  • (iv) evidence-based agricultural policies in relation to incentives, markets, technologies, and rural infrastructure;
  • (v) facilitation of contract-growing and out-grower schemes;
  • (vi) enhanced market information systems;
  • (vii) improved knowledge and extension services (including rural banking); and – last but not least –
  • (viii) decentralised (community-based) negotiation.

Additionally, in order to promote faster, cheaper and clearer land sales of public lands – and avoid corruption in land deals, the World Bank (2010: 29) is pushing for the adoption of land auctions.

Codes and guidelines: no magic bullet

None of these items is new; many have been on the agenda of mainstream development institutions for years (although admittedly the call for land auction is something relatively new and bold for the World Bank in the current context). What is new is the other element of the proposed risk management: An international CoC-PRAI that would govern the making and keeping of transnational land deals in ways that protect local people and environments, while still allowing them to be profitable in the conventional sense. This is the magic bullet in the new narrative on land grabbing.

Advocates believe that CoC-PRAI offers the best chance for big land deals to lead to ‘win-win’ outcomes for all concerned. A win-win outcome is understood as one in which:

(i) the development needs of both the resource-poor countries and resource-rich countries are met, (ii) investors’ needs and interests (i.e. profits) are served, and (iii) poor people’s incomes and livelihoods are enhanced.

What the ‘resource-poor countries’ are said to need is secure supplies of food and fuel in order to sustain their current patterns of food consumption and production. What the ‘resource-rich countries’ are said to need is new investments in agriculture that would create jobs, support small farmers, and bolster exports. What investors are said to need is an improved, clear, stable, and secure investment climate (indeed, clear property rights to secure investments).

Guidelines do not challenge main drivers of landgrabbing

In theory, the application of CoC-PRAI might seem to be relevant and beneficial, or at the very least, harmless. At the very least, the logic seems to go, one might expect that applying the technique in this case would not do any further harm than is already being done by the illicit land grabs themselves. As we see it, the problems with CoC-PRAI include:

CoC-PRAI explicitly or implicitly assumes that there is no fundamental problem with existing industrial food and energy production and consumption patterns tightly controlled by transnational corporations (TNCs).

First, proposals for CoC-PRAI for land deals necessarily operate within and seek to sustain or extend the existing global industrial agro-food and energy complex. Positing CoC-PRAI as an overarching framework in response to globalised land-grabbing therefore does not address serious problems associated with the extractive mining of land (and water) in the Global South to meet the food and energy demands of some countries and to sustain corporate profits. It explicitly or implicitly assumes that there is no fundamental problem with existing industrial food and energy production and consumption patterns tightly controlled by transnational corporations (TNCs).

Second, the CoC-PRAI is being promoted in tandem with the notion of the existence of ‘reserve agricultural land’, combined with images of agri-industrial systems playing a beneficial role in restoring degraded land to health, utilising marginal land more fully, and reinvigorating idle land. In addition to new satellite imagery (which does not picture people or their historical land-based social relations and livelihood practices), the assumption of ‘reserve land’ is often based on standard nation-state claims derived from official census data about existing population, land use and land property relations, which are notoriously unreliable in many countries, for a variety of reasons. The very notion of ‘reserve’ more or less automatically renders such land, by definition, ‘available’, amenable to, and appropriate for transformation into global granaries or new oil wells. Other possible or actual uses are rendered invisible.

Accepting the notion of reserve agricultural land necessarily consigns existing local land-based social relations and practices that are diverse and distinct to being vestiges of the past — to be acknowledged, but in the end, not worthy of being taken seriously enough to protect and advance into the future. They simply do not ‘fit’ the economic development grid envisioned by today’s proponents of CoC-PRAI. Based on past experience, what we can expect from this kind of framing of land is more dispossession, dislocation or displacement in the name of transforming ‘marginal’ land into economically productive spaces. And because most of these people cannot be absorbed in any industrial sector of a given society, they are thus a ‘surplus population’, and who is going to take care of theme and how, as Tania Li has asked (Li, 2010), is a big question. Moreover, the rehabilitation of so-called ‘degraded’ lands often comes in the form of industrial monocropping that is portrayed as environmentally friendly, but actually undermines the lands ecologically (e.g. industrial tree monocropping is now often referred to as ‘sustainable reforestation’).

Third, advocates of CoC-PRAI argue that without clear land property rights (usually taken as individual and private) the ‘risk’ of dispossession is high. Implicit here is a belief that having formal land property rights removes this risk and serves as a guarantee that people will not be displaced and dispossessed by these large-scale land deals.

Formal land property rights at leading edge of land dispossession

Such a view converges with years of mainstream advocacy for the privatisation of the remaining commons and formalisation of land rights, targeting public lands worldwide. Yet this view is deeply flawed. There is much evidence to show that formal land property rights are no guarantee against dispossession, and they even often appear at the leading edge of it.

Formal land property rights are contested terrain, since they involve decisions about who counts and who does not, who is included/who is excluded.

The introduction of formal land property rights first requires answering in practice (in power-differentiated settings marked by conflicting interests) the complex series of questions posed earlier in this discussion — who has (or should have) what rights to which land for how long and for what purposes (Richards 2002). Formal land property rights are contested terrain, since they involve decisions about who counts and who does not, who is included/who is excluded.

Introducing formal rights for indigenous landholders is not necessarily pro-poor in and of itself; but it does recalibrate the arena of struggle (Sawyer and Gomez 2008). Gaining legal recognition of poor people’s land rights has never alone guaranteed that they will actually be respected and protected in the courts or on the ground; for the rural poor, there remains a difficult and contested process involving struggles to actually claim those rights and ‘make them real’ in fact (Cousins 1997). Neither categorically pro-poor outcomes, nor even ‘win-win’ outcomes, are ever guaranteed. Clear land property rights (private or otherwise) have certainly not guaranteed win-win outcomes in many of the land deals, nor have they automatically protected the rural poor from various forms of dispossession or ‘adverse incorporation’ into the food-feed-fuel production enclaves.

Moreover, secure property rights should not a priori, only or always, mean private property rights; in many parts of the world, an inductive approach is needed that is based on a deep understanding of the societies where intervention is targeted and ‘makes socially legitimate occupation and use rights, as they are currently held and practiced, the point of departure for both their recognition in law and for the design of institutional frameworks for mediating competing claims and administering land’ (Cousins 2007).

Fourth, the assumption that land transactions among ‘multi-stakeholders’ that are formal and transparent, and, to the extent possible, decentralised-localised, are the solution to avoid negative consequences of current mega land deals is only partly correct. Certainly, any land deal should at least be transparent, but transparency does not necessarily guarantee pro-poor outcomes. Transparency is not the same as accountability, and transparent transactions do not necessarily guarantee accountability, especially to poor ‘stakeholders’ (Fox 2007).

Fifth, inherent in CoC-PRAI is the voluntary nature of agreements. Violations are difficult to pin down; violators are impossible to make accountable. Even where there is formal adherence by the parties concerned to the principles of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), these principles are rarely observed and enforced in practice, and it would take much political power, time, and resources to ensure that they were. Sawyer and Gomez (2008) have observed the paradox that, simultaneously with an increase in and institutionalisation of international treaties, voluntary guidelines, and FPIC principles intended to protect indigenous peoples, there have been unprecedented violations of the rights of indigenous peoples and the penetration of their territories worldwide.

Sixth, ‘partnership’ is also a key concept in CoC-PRAI. It comes in many component forms, including state/private-sector/civil-society partnerships, which are assumed to promote transparency and build win-win outcomes into any land deals. But such a notion is based on a depoliticised and unrealistic vision of engagement between various actors that strips them of any conflicting interests and places them on equal footing. Imagining equal footing and complementary interests where none exist is more likely than not to lead to the poor losing out.

CoC-PRAI a dangerous diversion

Each of these principles in itself is not necessarily bad; each could have merit depending on a particular context. But none is inherently good in that none can guarantee truly pro-poor outcomes. In the absence of a clear framework and process that insists on prioritising truly pro-poor outcomes, the weaknesses of these various elements are more likely to be reinforced when framed within a win-win voluntary CoC-PRAI as the response to the global land-grab.

It should be no surprise that the forces clamouring for CoC-PRAI for land transactions today are the same ones that have been telling us that real land reform is impossible.

The CoC-PRAI being proposed by the World Bank and others is a dangerous diversion. It diverts attention away from the real issues at hand with respect to land. It diverts attention away from what is wrong with the economic development model it aspires to and the key role of land in achieving this model. And it also diverts our attention away from coming to terms with how rural poor people’s land rights, interests and concerns can (and must) be protected and advanced into the future. It should be no surprise that the forces clamouring for CoC-PRAI for land transactions today are the same ones that have been telling us that real land reform is impossible. And they are the same ones too that are telling us now that land-grabbing is inevitable.

Confronted by their ‘impossibility thesis’ on the one hand, and their ‘inevitability thesis’ on the other, we appear to have no choice but to resign ourselves and accept that TNC-driven and controlled development path – and its view of rural poverty, land, and land rights – is the only one left.

Alternatives to a TNC-driven and controlled development

But theirs is not the only path left open; there are still choices, agency, and the capacity to struggle for meaningful change that prioritises now and into the future the rights and the voices of the rural poor with regard to land and other resources. And yet, rejecting a bad idea is one thing; asserting that ‘another world is possible’ is another; and making alternatives happen under real world conditions, constraints and circumstances is still quite another. There is complexity in land issues that can be ignored only with great risk to the rural poor. Any social justice-driven answers to the current dilemmas with regard to land resources will be confronted by and therefore must pay attention to these complexities. Global land-grabbing in favour of TNCs and for food, feed or fuel export is just one part of what is happening on the rural front. Recognising this thus demands a broader and deeper degree of understanding of contemporary land issues than the current, dominant global land grab framework can provide.

To get a better grasp of land issues today requires unpacking the vague category of ‘land use change’. Global land use today is changing not just in one direction (e.g. in favour of food or biofuel production for export); but instead it has many faces. A fuller understanding of land use change brought about by (trans)national commercial land deals requires empirical research and theorising that are able to cover the breadth and diversity of the actually existing social conditions and dynamics. It is also crucial to trace how these various directions in land use change (re)shape one another. And while mainstream institutions tend to focus their attention narrowly on issues of land use change alone, a better grasp of the current global situation demands closer scrutiny of the dynamics of land property relations changes – for these types of changes relate directly to the burning global issues of enclosure and dispossession.

The new fronts of land enclosures

This can be seen in the current (trans)national commercial land deals on two fronts. First, we see dominant social classes and groups (e.g. landlords, capitalists, traditional village chiefs) and state bureaucrats who have some kind of pre-existing access to and/or control over land resources, trying to cash in on the re-valued land property. They do this either by consolidating and expanding landholdings and selling or leasing them out to new investors, or by getting incorporated into the emerging new food and energy agro-industrial complex. This is happening in many countries today, including Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, and in many countries in Africa. Some of these economically and politically dominant classes and groups and other corporate interests have expanded their food and biofuel production by swallowing up smaller farm units either by purchase or lease. This is partly the way the sugarcane belt of Brazil has been expanding. In short, the first front is on private land property.

Then there is the other, second front, which in fact is much bigger than the first and is the main target of the current worldwide massive enclosure. These are the non-private lands, often broadly and vaguely referred to as ‘public land’ or the ‘global commons’. The ‘non-private land category’ is huge – for instance, it comprises the majority of land in Africa. But here is where it gets tricky. Official categories do not necessarily reflect actual human practice. For example, while 70 per cent of Indonesia’s land is officially categorised as ‘state forest land’, (un)official private appropriation and use of it still occurs in practice. In reality, many such lands across the globe are productive farmlands under different farming techniques. Yet this reality is essentially dismissed by the claim of a vast global reserve of available agricultural land that is central to the World Bank’s land grab report in September 2010.

The affected rural poor communities and their allies are not likely to simply accept the land grabbing process in the way the World Bank and its supporters might suppose.

Massive enclosures on these two fronts (private and non-private lands) will be far-reaching partly because of the political-economic imperatives (convergence of food, energy, financial and environmental crises) of capitalist development and expansion, and partly because this process will be aided by 21st century hi-tech gadgets (computerised recording, satellite mapping, and so on) for clearer, cheaper, faster, and more efficient land administration and management, or efficient ‘land governance’. This is likely to result not only in undermining remaining moral economies in many agrarian societies, but it is likely to result in massive dispossession and/or displacement of peasants, indigenous peoples and other rural poor dwellers worldwide. Many of them will be incorporated into these food-feed-fuel production enclaves, some under relatively bearable conditions and some under more adverse terms. Many others are likely to be completely dispossessed; and some of these will be displaced and forced to migrate to agro-ecologically precarious and fragile settings.

The contemporary land grab phenomenon has started to gain momentum and is rapidly expanding. Institutional support for this process is varied and widespread, but largely justified by calls for the need for and feasibility of regulating land grab via a code of conduct or a set of principles on responsible land grabbing. Most recently, this has been expressed in the September 2010 World Bank land grab report. Still, the affected rural poor communities and their allies are not likely to simply accept the land grabbing process in the way the World Bank and its supporters might suppose. Already we are witnessing increasingly widespread ‘everyday forms of resistance’ by villagers and increasingly organised, widely networked and politically sophisticated campaigns by (trans)national agrarian and environmental social movements in mounting opposition. The character, pace, direction and future of global land grabbing will be at least be partly (re)shaped, if not blocked, by the actions of these social forces.


  • Borras, Saturnino Jr. and Jennifer C. Franco (2010). ‘From Threat to Opportunity? Problems with the Idea of a “Code of Conduct” for Land-Grabbing’. Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, vol. 13, no. 2.
  • Cousins, Ben (2007). ‘More than socially embedded: the distinctive character of “communal tenure” regimes in South Africa and its implications for land policy’. Journal of Agrarian Change, 7(3): 281-423.
  • Cousins, Ben (1997). How do rights become real? Formal and informal institutions in South Africa’s land reform. IDS Bulletin 28(6), pp. 59–67.
  • Fox, Jonathan (2007). Accountability Politics. Oxford University Press.
  • Li, Tania Murray (2010). To Make Live or Let Die? Rural Dispossession and the Protection of Surplus Populations. Antipode, Volume 41, special issue, pp. 66-93.
  • Richards, John (2002). ‘Introduction’, in J. Richards, ed. Land, Property and the Environment. Oakland.
  • Sawyer, S. and E. Gomez (2008). Transnational governmentality and resource extraction: indigenous peoples, multinational corporations, multilateral institutions and the state. Geneva: UNRISD.
  • Von Braun, Joachem and Ruth Meinzen-Dick (2009). ‘“Land Grabbing” by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities’.
  • IFPRI Policy Brief 13, April 2009. Washington DC: IFPRI.
  • World Bank (2010). Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits? Washington DC: World Bank.”