|'Land rush towards Asia should be regulated'|
The land rush towards Asia by rich nations wishing to secure their food needs should be regulated as the trend threatens to reverse agrarian reform gains and leave communities and resources in the host countries vulnerable to exploitation, said a land reform advocate.
In a paper, Antonio B. Quizon, chairperson of the Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ANGOC), said governments must develop clear policies on the new wave of land deals from rich countries as these have implications not only on their people's needs and rights but also food security and the environment.
"It is imperative for citizens to exact transparency and accountability from their government, ensuring the state regulation of foreign investments. The effect should be maximum benefits for the citizens – people’s needs and rights prioritized and protected," he said.
"Governments must develop clear policies on foreign land investment that engage the overriding interests of the country' – from food security to environmental sustainability of land and natural resources," he said in the paper published in Lok Niti, Angoc's journal. The paper was based on a regional workshop held last year in Bangkok on public- private partnerships for land investments.
Quizon said the trend threatens gains in land reform because the new land deals will increase the concentration of land ownership and access in favor of the foreign investors. "Greater land competition also increases land values, thereby leaving the rural poor outside of land markets," he said.
He said the new wave of land acquisitions, which had been labeled the “new colonialism” and the “international land grab”, has been driven by rising world food prices that started in the 1990s and peaked in 2006-2008. To secure their food needs these wealthy nations scour for farmlands overseas for the large-scale production of food, livestock and other products which will feed their citizens.
Another driver for the land rush is the growth of the biofuel industry which has shifted land use from food to biofuel crops, Quizon said.
In Asia, the land rush has been led by rich countries from the Middle East and East Asia, he said. He cited another study which said that as of end-2008, China, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Saudi Arabia controlled over 7.6 million cultivable hectares overseas.
Quizon said host or target governments welcome the investments into the agriculture sector unmindful the trend could compromise long-term food security.
He blamed the "hunger of global capital" for the land rush as it "commodified" everything - land and water, plants and genes, and even “clean air” in the form of “carbon emission quotas”.
"This commodification of land fuels the rush for the world’s farmlands," he said.
Quizon said one major concern over the trend has been the large-scale displacement of small farmers and settlers from their lands. "There have been numerous written accounts of small landowners being pressured and intimidated into involuntarily leasing their lands. The intense competition for land can lead to conflict and abuses of human rights by the forces that seek to gain entry into private and public lands.
"Social conflicts also arise within and among communities especially when companies make payments and bribes to some local leaders and representatives," he said.
Indigenous peoples are the most heavily affected in these transactions as they have been neglected by decades of land reforms and whose land rights are again violated by the new land deals, Quizon said.
He also challenged whether the host or target country really benefit from these transactions. "Local communities are not likely to benefit if land deals result in the creation of 'production enclaves' that operate in isolation from indigenous, smallholder systems," he said.
Also, he said foreign partnerships are often forged with large landowners and local corporations. "Critics say that landless and small farmers are unlikely to secure jobs in the new agriculture system. For plantation workers, wages are low, labor rights are curtailed, and many end up as indentured workers due to large debts incurred," Quizon said.
There are also environmental and social implications as forests are converted to monoculture plantations, he said.
He said water shortages also occur as a result of forest clearance, building of canal networks, water runoffs and evaporatin and the closing of small streams.
Quizon also criticized the secrecy in sealing such land deals. "With little prior information or consultation, local communities are unaware until the moment they are evicted or land clearing operations begin.
"Absence of transparency in the new land deals also creates opportunities for corruption," he said.
Quizon said that some companies were also reported to have very poor social policies, with flagrant disregard for communal forest rights or the rule of law.
"Case studies confirm many land investments feature weak governance and a failure to recognize, protect, or properly compensate local communities’ land rights," he said.
He said host governments welcome foreign investments in agriculture projects to offset public investments in the sector. "With dwindling ODA (overseas development assistance) and national budget deficits, many cash-strapped governments have to rely increasingly on the 'private sector' or foreign direct investments," he said.
He cited figures from the Food and Agriculture Agency that said developing countries need $83 billion in additional investments annually to meet their food needs by 2050.
Quizon said while there have been calls by the international community to monitor land investments and set up a global code of conduct and voluntary guidelines for host governments, "these responses have been criticized as weak as they are non-binding and non-enforceable."
He said, "Key questions for foreign land acquisitions must focus on the following: current land use, land tenure arrangements, proposed land use and livelihood, food security in the host country, ecological conditions, transparency, terms of agreement, and enforceability of agreements."
For more information, contact ANGOC
73-K Dr. Lazcano Street Brgy. Laging Handa
+63 2 3510581
+63 2 3510011