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Land Grabbing and Its Implications for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The formerly state-owned Chinese company ZTE International has acquired three million hectares of land in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The giant agricultural plantation being developed there will produce palm oil, with nearly 100 percent of it being exported to China to provide food and biofuel for the country’s burgeoning population. What will happen to the Congolese people living on the site remains to be seen, however. What we do know is that the Chinese hold title to the land for 99 years, and that those living upon it may well be deprived of their rights to food and housing.

When foreign investors acquire large stretches of land for cultivation and export of agricultural products, access to water or market speculation, all too often we can speak of land grabbing.

A global rush on farmland

Media reports suggest that in Sub-Saharan Africa alone some 60 million hectares of land (equivalent to the total arable land of France, Italy and Germany combined) have been subject to this new form of agricultural investment in recent years. When up to 100 percent of produce is used to satisfy food and energy needs of foreign countries, local populations driven off their lands are deprived of the capacity to feed themselves and maintain their livelihood and culture. Therefore, land grabbing is an issue of crucial concern for economic, social and cultural rights.

Although not a new phenomenon, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Oliver De Schutter warns that the problem is intensifying: “What we are witnessing is a situation in which pressures on land and water are increasing at an unprecedented speed. Each year, up to 30 million hectares of farmland are lost.”

While Latin America and South East Asia have traditionally been the primary targets for foreign investment in agriculture, the World Bank’s initial report on the subject found that in recent years more than 70 percent of these deals took place in Sub-Saharan Africa, with Ethiopia, Mozambique, North and South Sudan, Madagascar and the DRC being the principal countries.

Foreign investors looking for food and energy

The major investors in the region are the Gulf States. They generally favor other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, such as North and South Sudan. South Korea and China have also played a significant role in land grabbing.

An essential characteristic of land grabbing is the direct or indirect involvement of investing governments. By acquiring arable land for up to 99 years, states may directly outsource their food production, or execute projects via state-owned enterprises. Furthermore they often provide subsidies for food or biofuel production. About 50 percent of land grabs are conducted with state involvement.

While governmental investments often focus on food production, private corporations - mostly based in Western countries - mainly produce crops for biofuels. Stock market brokers and investment funds have emerged as new actors in the agricultural sector acquiring farmland for speculation purposes. New York-based investment fund Jarch Capital is now said to own 1.2 million hectares of land in South Sudan, reportedly bought from rebel leaders.

Losing access to land and resources

In the vast majority of cases these investments are characterized by a lack of transparency and scant participation of local populations. They are not illegal under investment law, however, and they are often nested in bilateral cooperation agreements.

Those benefiting from such investments are often local elites and corrupt governments. When up to 100 percent of crops are used for export in order to fulfill the food security targets of foreign countries, benefits for local populations are limited. Traditional forms of agriculture are lost, while large-scale industrial farming causes environmental degradation and water scarcity. Most importantly, people are driven off their lands and lose access to resources. Those affected generally have no voice to demand justice.

Economic, social and cultural rights as a tool to demand justice

Land grabbing therefore stands in clear contradiction of economic, social and cultural rights. Access to land and resources has been defined as a core element of the right to food, housing, self-determination and participation in cultural life. The right to food calls for a fair distribution of food supplies while the right to housing aims at outlawing arbitrary forced evictions. 

General Comment 12 of the CESCR stresses in Paragraph 6 that: "The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement." The General Comment also establishes that food availability involves "possibilities either for feeding oneself directly from productive land or other natural resources."

General Comment 4 on the right to adequate housing notes that the right to housing cannot be interpreted narrowly, but rather should be seen as "the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity", and that "forced evictions are considered as prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances, and in accordance with the relevant principles of international law."

Furthermore, in its General Comments the Committee has repeatedly stressed the importance of participation of local populations in decision-making processes. Furthermore, the African system of human rights emphasizes the rights to natural resources, development and a healthy environment.

As mentioned above the direct or indirect involvement of investing governments is an essential characteristic of land grabs. Therefore, human rights obligations cannot be restricted to host governments. Those states acquiring land abroad must also live up to extraterritorial obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights towards those affected by their actions. The UN Charter establishes the duty to cooperate internationally in order to establish an enabling environment for the fulfillment of human rights. There is no space for land grabs in such an “enabling environment”. Economic, social and cultural rights can serve as a tool to prevent land grabbing.

What is being done?

Until recently awareness raising on the subject was largely left to non-governmental organizations and human rights activists. Only in 2009 did the World Bank take up the subject, arguing for principles of responsible investment. Along the same lines, the FAO has drafted voluntary guidelines for investors in agriculture. For many, these ethical guidelines do not provide an adequate solution to the problem, and many civil society organizations and social movements demanding justice have called for land grabbing to be outlawed. 

The Kuala Lumpur Guidelines for a Human Rights Approach to Economic Policy in Agriculture, developed by ESCR-NET, have also been designed as a tool for guiding agricultural policy in accordance with human rights principles and standards.  Meanwhile, The Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement, drawn up by the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, address the human rights implications of coerced or involuntary evictions and displacement. The latter framework also offers guidance on the human rights obligations of duty-bearers in the face of potential violations caused by landgrabbing.

The recent large-scale acquisition of land is a global phenomenon with deep implications for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights for some of the world's most vulnerable populations. As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated in 2010 in no uncertain terms, “we have seen a scramble for Africa before. I don’t think we want to see a second scramble of that kind.”