GENEVA — A new study suggests a huge risk for global businesses: Local communities are disputing almost a third of the land involved in commercial land deals in 12 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.
The study for the U.S.-based Rights and Resources Initiative highlights a topic being studied by the World Bank, development organizations and other participants from 40 countries at a conference that began Thursday in Interlaken, Switzerland.
It used mapping technology to analyze over 153 million hectares – about the size of the Gulf of Mexico – licensed for everything from agriculture to forestry to mining in Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Liberia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mozambique, Peru and the Philippines.
The study found at least 31 percent of the land – an area equivalent to the Appalachian region that stretches from southern New York to northern Mississippi – overlapped with indigenous land claims. It said that put at risk at least $5 billion worth of agriculture production, mostly in Argentina.
According to the study, 84 percent of Argentina's soybean concessions overlap with community-claimed areas, potentially tying up $4.6 billion in production.
In Cameroon, 83 percent of all timber concessions overlap with community forests, putting at risk nearly a half-percent of the nation's entire annual economic production, the study found. And in the Philippines, one mining project on disputed land is projected to add 1 percent to the country's annual economic output.
The study focused on countries with the best data, but its authors pointed out that those with the least data present more of a risk because of the unknowns.
Andy White, coordinator of RRI, a coalition that includes over 150 organizations, said conference organizers will urge the world to adopt a goal of doubling the amount of land and forests managed or clearly owned by local communities and indigenous peoples by the end of 2018.
Jorge Muñoz, one of five World Bank officials at the conference, said there's growing momentum to figure out how to solve these problems, and acknowledged that some criticism of the bank's role in financing major development projects is legitimate.
But he added: "I wouldn't say we're part of the problem. We're a big part of the solution."
Chris Anderson, director for communities and social performance for British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto Group, said the conference marked the first time officials from across so many fields converged to figure out "how do we recognize people's rights in lands, but at the same time grow their economies so they improve their livelihoods?"
"We've realized that none of us can do any of this alone," he said, adding that companies "can no longer trust governments" to have all the land ownership rights worked out when they award commercial licenses.