For every land grabber there is a land giver

Concerns around the impacts and risks of “land grabs” for large scale foreign-owned agro-business in the Congo Basin are justified but this is only the latest manifestation of approaches to land and forest governance that have served to dispossess forest dwellers since colonial times.

The rapid growth of foreign-owned agro-industrial expansion in developing countries in the wake of the 2008 food crisis – often at the expense of local and subsistence farmers who are dispossessed of their lands – has increasingly drawn the attention of international observers, activists and policy makers in recent years. According to the International Land Coalition, 106 million hectares (261 million acres) of land in developing countries were acquired by foreign investors between 2000 and 2010, often in countries with high rates of hunger.

In the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest and currently most intact rainforest, the rate of land acquisition for large-scale agricultural purposes has remained relatively low. But as RFUK’s recent report on industrial palm oil expansion Seeds of Destruction shows, in the absence of secure tenure arrangements, adequate legal frameworks and institutions, there is the potential for this area to expand rapidly in the coming years.

“Land grabbing” , whether it be from a palm oil developer or through Chinese resource speculation, is an issue that has united both the conservation movement and more rights-based campaigners. But in reality local communities in the region have faced dispossession of lands ever since newly independent governments decided to maintain previous colonial land laws which gave the state complete ownership of land, and who subsequently began allocating huge swathes of forest to foreign interests from the 1970s onwards.

Today, land tenure systems in the Congo Basin countries are notoriously chaotic. As different sectors and ministries, not to mention international donors and NGOs, follow their own agendas (i.e. timber production, biodiversity conservation, mineral and oil exports, carbon credits), resource concession maps of the region can resemble a jumbled patchwork of overlapping concessions, permits and projects. Not only is this storing up significant governance challenges for the future, but such allocations are more often than not on lands already occupied and used by local communities – with the inevitable conflicts that this entails.

Hence, by demonising foreign palm oil developers as ‘land-grabbers’, and viewing their actions as encroachment on sovereign African nation states, we ignore the fact that for every ‘land grabber’ there is a ‘land giver’.

Perhaps the focus needs to shift onto the way in which major allocations of land to foreigners are made, whose interests benefit from such decisions, and what is needed to strengthen and reform national institutions and land tenure regimes to enable such countries to make economic decisions that have an equitable impact on their populations. Forest zoning initiatives and land reform processes initiated or earmarked for the region in theory provide an opportunity for this if there is sufficient political will and a genuine commitment to engaging existing land rights claimants such as local communities. Slowly, a better understanding of the crucial link between securing such rights, food security and poverty reduction is emerging in some policy-making circles – it is more important than ever that this translates into action.