Global Policy Forum

Poor Losing out from Large Land Deals-Study

A new study by the International Land Coalition (ILC) found that ineffective governance, corruption and weak rights for local landholders have fueled global land grabbing. Analyzing work from over 40 organizations, ILC found that large-scale land leases or purchases between 2000 and 2010 amounted to 200 million hectares, eight times the size of Britain. They study also found that an overwhelming majority of the land was acquired for biofuel production, not food.

By Thin Lei Win


December 14, 2011 

The global rush to acquire large amounts of land in developing countries has done more harm than good, especially to the poorest people who often lose access to land and resources essential to their livelihoods, a new study said on Wednesday.

The problem is fuelled by ineffective governance, corruption, a lack of transparency in decision-making and weak rights for local landholders, according to the study by the International Land Coalition (ILC), which presents findings from the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project.

Scant economic protection for the rural poor compared with international investors, and the common belief that large-scale agriculture is the best way to achieve food security also contribute to the negative impacts, it added.

Promised jobs have yet to materialise, and in the rush to attract investment, many governments miss out on tax and lease revenues that better-negotiated deals could provide, it concluded.

“The poor are bearing disproportionate costs, but reaping few benefits, because of poor governance... Women are particularly vulnerable,” the report said.

It predicts that high global demand for land is likely to continue, though the steep increase between 2005 and 2008 - triggered mainly by the 2007-2008 food price crisis - may level off.

“Far from being a brief phenomenon, the land rush is likely to continue into the long term because of the trends that are driving it,” the report said. “Ultimately, the drivers of increasing competition for land are population growth and growing consumption by a global minority.”

The report, which synthesises work from more than 40 organisations around the world, looked at large-scale land transactions from 2000 to 2010, amounting to some 200 million hectares, eight times the size of Britain.

Of this, the authors were able to triangulate and cross-reference 71 million hectares of land deals. They found that 78 percent was acquired for agricultural production but, surprisingly, three-quarters of this was for biofuels and not food. The remaining 22 percent was bought for mining, tourism, industry and forestry.

Africa was home to the biggest acquisitions, accounting for 134 million hectares of the deals reported. Asia was second, with 29 million hectares.


Two-thirds of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and most are engaged in farming, according to the World Bank. That makes land ownership and governance key to food security, poverty reduction, human rights and equitable access to resources.

Large land deals in developing countries have surged in recent years, fuelled mainly by concerns about food shortages, the biofuels boom, and the rising scarcity and financial value of agricultural land.

Critics say these so-called “land grabs”, by both local and foreign investors, pay little attention to land rights that are already weak in many of the target countries.

The report also found that, while most media have focused on the role of foreign investors, local elites actually play a much larger role in land acquisitions than previously reported.

And while global trade regimes protect international investors, there are fewer and less effective arrangements to protect the rights of the rural poor.


The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has been working for six years on a set of guidelines to help improve land-tenure governance and encourage transparency in land deals.

While they are only intended to be voluntary, activists say they could serve as a much-needed tool to address gender imbalance, which dictates that women often have weaker rights than men to the land they work on. And they could help answer charges that large land deals violate human rights, fail to secure consent from affected communities, and ignore environmental concerns.

But, in October, a U.N. intergovernmental body on food security failed to adopt the guidelines.

“The dispossession and marginalisation of the rural poor is nothing new. Rather, the current land rush represents an acceleration of ongoing processes, and one that appears set to continue,” the ILC report said.

“We are at a crossroads as regards the future of rural societies, land-based production and ecosystems in many areas of the South,” it added.


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