Land Rights

The purchase and lease of vast tracts of land from poor, developing countries by wealthier nations and international private investors has led to debate about whether land investment is a tool for development or force of displacement.

The Facts: 

Over the last four years, there has been a significant increase in land-based investment, both in terms of the number of investment projects and the total land area allocated. Industrialized nations and private foreign investors have driven demand for arable land in developing regions, particularly in Africa, but also in South America, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Governments are interested in the lands for purposes of food security and biofuel production. Both governments and private investors are attracted by policy reforms that have improved the investment climate in developing countries, as well as arbitrage opportunities afforded by the extremely low cost of leasing land in these regions.

While only fractions of arable land in developing regions are being used for agriculture, demand for strategic swats next to irrigation and shipping sites is growing with greater investment. These areas and other lands are frequently in use even though occupants’ have no legal rights to the land or access to legal institutions. As demand for land assets increases and governments and multilateral institutions promote investment in national lands, displacement and affected livelihoods are becoming serious sources of international concern.

What we are doing about it: 

Media coverage of land acquisitions has been sparse and lacking in investigative detail. The Oakland Institute is committed to increasing transparency about land deals including the terms of negotiation, theoretical consequences of investment, real impact on the ground, and ultimate impact on development in several African countries.

July 30, 2014
For immediate release World Bank Turns Its Back on Rights Protections for the Poor Global civil society response gathers momentum  
July 28, 2014
---FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE--- Contacts: Frédéric Mousseau +33-678-585103; fmousseau@oaklandinstitute.org
From rising food prices to growing demand for biofuel, the current obsession for agricultural land borders on speculative mania as private companies, hedge funds, private equity funds, and sovereign wealth funds join the land rush looking for lucrative deals in the developing world. An estimated 500 million acres, an area about ten times the size of Britain, has been bought or leased in the developing world in the last decade. The social, economic, and environmental impacts of this trend have been extensively researched and made public by the Oakland Institute. This brief offers insight into a new class of companies, such as African Land Limited, that use the idea of helping African communities, together with deception around yields and profits, to dupe investors—including retired individuals who’ve handed over their life savings—to make more while doing good. With the tagline “We Harvest—You Profit,” the UK-based African Land Limited offers an opportunity for land investment in poor countries that sounds too good to pass up. Unhappy investors, legal troubles, and a history of controversial directors reveal another story.
Established in 1944 with the objective of reducing poverty, the World Bank, headquartered in Washington, DC, is an international financial institution that provides financial and technical assistance as well as advisory services to enhance development in poor and transitioning countries. Despite its praiseworthy goals, the World Bank’s activities and undue influence over policy making in developing countries have come under heavy criticism over the years. Countless protests have denounced the Bank’s neoliberal agenda, which includes unfair conditionality policies, austerity measures that deny people’s right to healthcare or education, support for environmentally destructive projects, and sham debt relief. The Bank’s 1980s structural adjustments programs (SAPs), impoverished millions in developing countries after imposing the withdrawal of state intervention and sweeping liberalization of economies as conditions to receive loans. The SAPs came under heavy attack from all quarters of civil society until they were officially withdrawn in 2002.
Senhuile-Senéthanol, an agribusiness company, has been setting up agro-industrial plantations in the Saint-Louis region of northwest Senegal since July 2010. Owned by a complex maze of companies and individuals with ties to numerous countries around the world, including Italy, United States, Brazil, and Panama, the company holds a lease for 20,000 hectares of land. From the very inception of the project, Senhuile-Senéthanol has faced stiff resistance from local populations.
The first years of the twenty-first century will be remembered for a global land rush of nearly unprecedented scale. An estimated 500 million acres, an area eight times the size of Britain, was reported bought or leased across the developing world between 2000 and 2011, often at the expense of local food security and land rights. When the price of food spiked in 2008, pushing the number of hungry people in the world to over one billion, the interest of investors spiked as well, and within a year foreign land deals in the developing world rose by a staggering 200 percent. Today, enthusiasm for agriculture borders on speculative mania. Driven by everything from rising food prices to growing demand for biofuel, the financial sector is taking an interest in farmland as never before. As the Oakland Institute reported in 2012, a new generation of institutional investors—including hedge funds, private equity, pension funds, and university endowments—is eager to capitalize on global farmland as a new and highly desirable asset class.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with more than 800 indigenous languages and over 600 islands. Among its many natural treasures, a unique asset is its rainforest, the third largest in the world and home to endangered wildlife, plants, and diverse groups of people. Yet a massive land rush is currently taking place in the country. In recent years, 12 percent of the country, 5.5 million hectares, has been leased out to foreign corporations.
In a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on September 15, 2013, the Oakland Institute and the Housing and Land Rights Network outlined the human rights and international law violations perpetrated by the government of Ethiopia in the name of country’s development strategy.
Southern Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley is one of the most culturally and biologically diverse areas in the world, yet the Ethiopian government is transforming more than 375,000 hectares (1450 sq. miles) of the region into industrial-scale plantations for sugar and other monocrops. A vast resettlement scheme for the local ethnic groups is accompanying these plans, as 260,000 local people from 17 ethnic groups who live in the Lower Omo and around Lake Turkana—whose waters will be taken for plantation irrigation—are being evicted from their farmland and restricted from using the natural resources they have been relying on for their livelihoods.
Ethiopia is a locus of international attention in the Horn of Africa due to both its consistently high rates of economic growth and for its continued problems with widespread hunger and poverty. The nation is also significant for being among the most dependent on foreign aid. Topping the worldwide list of countries receiving aid from the US, UK, and the World Bank, the nation has been receiving $3.5 billion on average from international donors in recent years, which represents 50 to 60 percent of its national budget.
A new report exposes the significant discrepancies between how Herakles Farms has represented their palm oil plantation project in Cameroon to the public and what it is telling prospective investors and creditors.
The aviation industry has high hopes for biofuels. As its profits are increasingly threatened by erratic fossil fuel prices, and as consumers are more and more concerned with the role of aviation in climate change, biofuels are being billed as the path to both profitability and sustainability. Unfortunately, emerging evidence suggests that as airlines rush to procure biofuel, they do so at the expense of people and the environment.
Millions of acres of Ethiopia’s most fertile land are being made available to investors, often in long-term leases and at giveaway prices. Although proponents of these investments call them “win-win” deals, the reality proves much different. To make way for agricultural investment, and through its so-called villagization program, the Ethiopian government has forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from their lands. This relocation process has destroyed livelihoods. It has rendered small-scale farmers and pastoralist communities dependent on food aid and fearful for their own survival. Ethiopian officials have also beaten, arrested, and intimidated individuals who have refused to comply with relocation policies.6 These actions are in direct contravention of Ethiopia’s obligations under international human rights law.
The Lower Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia is internationally renowned for its unique cultural and ecological landscape. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Lower Omo Valley contains two national parks and is home to approximately 200,000 agro-pastoralists made up of some of Africa’s most unique and traditional ethnic groups, including the Kwegu, Bodi, Suri, Mursi, Nyangatom, Hamer, Karo, and Dassenach, among others.
Following the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the housing market, private equity funds have found a new lucrative soft commodity market to invest in – farmland. In a short period of time, obscured from public view, the flow of private capital into farmland and agriculture has grown dramatically worldwide.
The surge in large-scale commercial interest in land by domestic, international, private, and public actors has prompted a wide variety of stakeholders to consider how such investments may contribute to, rather than erode, local development priorities. The emerging body of evidence points to the significant risks of negative impacts on: access to and control over natural resources, household economies, food security, human rights, and the environment.
Phase two of our research on land grabs reveals how bad energy policies and development agendas contribute to famine and conflict in Africa.
On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan (RSS) became the world’s newest nation. Despite the significant strides that South Sudanese have made since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, South Sudan remains one of the least developed countries in the world. In order to meet its developmental challenges, the government of South Sudan has begun promoting large-scale private investments as a shortcut to rapid economic development.
Agricultural investment in Zambia is on the rise as the government of this Southern African country is quietly marketing and planning the development of at least 1.5 million hectares (ha) of its land. Abundant supplies of land and water, a “positive” investment climate, and political stability are all touted as incentives for investment. This report contains an analysis of agricultural investment trends in Zambia today.
After decades of limited interest in agriculture in developing countries, foreign direct investment (FDI) in agriculture is on the rise. In recent years, over 4 million hectares (ha) of land have been requested by foreign investors for both agrofuel and food production in Tanzania. Though a small portion of these (70,000 ha) had actually been formally leased as of December 2010, this confirms Tanzania as a very attractive country for foreign investors seeking to grow food and agrofuels for export.
Mozambique’s history of Portuguese colonialism, three wars, and then the imposition by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund of a harsh neo-liberal economic model led the government in the 1990s to accept the idea that the only way to promote development and end poverty was through encouraging foreign investment. Mozambique was identified by the World Bank as one of five sparsely populated African countries with large tracts of land available for rainfed cultivation. After 2000 rising food and fuel prices and new climate change-related attention on forests triggered the interest of investors in Mozambique, particularly for trees (for paper, timber and carbon credits) and agrofuels (notably sugar and jatropha).
A lot has happened in just a few months. The dynamic relationship between research, advocacy, and press has resulted in an amazing string of successes and organizing in the US and abroad. We are happy to share the results (so far) of our work with you.
The combined force of the U.S. based Oakland Institute's research and advocacy on African land deals and local, democratic activism in South Sudan has effectively stalled plans for the largest land deal in the area.
Read more about the Oakland Institute's ground-breaking research, which reveals previously unpublished details about land grabs across Africa.
For decades, Ethiopia has been known to the outside world as a country of famine, food shortages, endemic hunger, and chronic dependency on foreign aid. Despite receiving billions of dollars in aid, Ethiopians remain among the poorest in the world. Our research shows that at least 3,619,509 ha of land have been transferred to investors, although the actual number may be higher.
This report identifies and examines cases of large-scale land acquisitions in Mali. The report provides background on the institutional and political context of the country, the current macroeconomic situation, the state of food and agriculture, and the current investment climate. Additionally, it documents detailed information regarding four land investment deals currently being carried out in Mali.
Based on field research conducted between October 2010 and January 2011, this report provides new and important information on the social, political and economic implications of current land investments in Sierra Leone.
Oakland Institute’s report exposes the role of the Bank’s private sector branch, International Finance Corporation (IFC), in fueling land grabs, especially in Africa.
The Oakland Institute sounds the alarm on the threat that land grabbing poses to food security and livelihoods. Land grabs--the purchase of vast tracts of land from poor, developing countries by wealthier, food-insecure nations and private investors--have become a widespread phenomenon, with foreign interests seeking or securing between 37 million and 49 million acres of farmland between 2006 and the middle of 2009.
Quick Facts: 

56 million – total hectares of land (nearly the size of France) acquired in the developing world by international governments and investors since 2008.

70% of the population – in sub-Saharan Africa lives on their traditional lands that, because of colonial heritage, are classified as state lands in independent Africa. This is why governments believe that they can give away their land without consultation or legal redress.

$1 per hectare per year – the cost to private investors and foreign governments of leasing land in Ethiopia in 2008.