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Land Grabbing: What Has Changed?

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Land grabbing -- the global rush to acquire large tracts of land in Africa and elsewhere, often at the expense of local people -- is never far from the headlines. It's also an issue marked by secrecy in land deals themselves, as well as conflicts over evidence, causes and impacts. What should be done about land grabs, and who should do it, remains a topic of intense debate on the international stage.

This month, the new Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, offered one of his first statements on land grabbing since taking up office. He was speaking at the second 'Global Land Grabbing' conference at Cornell University in the USA, convened by the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI).

As a scholar of agrarian change and a former minister in Brazil, Graziano da Silva knows plenty about the subject. FAO, under the Committee for Food Security, has seen through the Voluntary Guidelines the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. Agreed earlier this year, as part of a long negotiating process involving all parties, the Voluntary Guidelines offer an important platform for continued debate. As Graziano da Silva confirmed, the proof of their effectiveness will come through national implementation. He urged academic researchers attending the conference, as well as practitioners and activists, to engage with these processes. He argued strongly that transparency and participation must be the touchstones of any policy.

Following his address, participants posed some tough questions -- on how 'voluntary' guidelines will have purchase, on how FAO will balance interests between investor countries (including his own, Brazil) and areas where land is being taken, on FAO's stance on land investment following the controversial Wall Street Journal article which he co-authored, and on the international governance of investment.

Graziano da Silva did not have answers for all, and some areas of policy remain vague, but it is clear that under his leadership, agrarian reform and land questions are back on the agenda.

Following its establishment in 1948, FAO took a strong lead on these issues, but in recent years they have not been so high a priority. The 'technical agency' label perhaps means that the organisation shies away from these challenges. But hopefully, in the coming years, a strong leadership on agrarian reform issues will emerge from Rome. The Director-General's recent comment that a "sheriff" is needed to address the "wild west" of land grabs in Africa is a rhetorical move in this direction.

This month's land grabbing conference followed on from the first conference held at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, 18 months earlier. The Cornell event was aimed at reflecting on the new trends and patterns emerging in this fast-moving global phenomenon.

Where are the successes of large-scale land deals?

Reporting on the 2011 IDS conference, The Economist observed: "the burden of evidence has shifted and it is up to the proponents of land deals to show that they work. At the moment, they have precious few examples to point to". Eighteen months on, examples of successful large-scale land investments remain few and far between. The 120 papers presented at Cornell document in detail the processes involved, highlighting in particular the major governance challenges arising, the processes of resistance unfolding, and the shifting pattern of who is doing the 'grabbing'. It is far from a simple story.

Yet, although the total farm areas taken for such investments remain on aggregate small, they have a huge impact in certain locations. And this new trend, driven by a combination of contemporary 'crises', of finance, fuel and food, is certainly high on the political agenda. Urgent policy responses, especially in Africa, are needed.

So what new debates on this key global policy issues are emerging? What new perspectives were offered at the conference? It is impossible to summarise everything of course, but there were a few things that struck me.

Context and analysis isn't just interesting -- it's essential

The last conference was dominated by case after case, all fresh from the field. There was an urgency and immediacy about the presentations. This has not disappeared: indeed, as Shalmali Guttal from Focus on the Global South forcefully pointed out, land grab issues are perhaps even more urgent a year or so on.

But there is now a growing understanding of the international, wider context of large land deals. Researchers are also showing how the narratives of 'idle land', 'productive commercial agriculture' and 'backward smallholders' are being used by politicians and others. The current rush for land has not come out of the blue -- it can be seen as part of longer-term processes of agrarian and political change.

Land grabbing is a process

Land grabbing is increasingly understood as a process which unfolds over quite long periods. Despite the high-profile announcements of large areas having been 'grabbed', many are not yet under production, and some may remain speculative acquisitions and may never be. When new large-scale farms are established, they appear in a variety of forms -- as estates or plantations, as nucleus arrangements with outgrower schemes, and many variants in between, across a variety of scales.

So understanding 'impacts' requires a much more nuanced assessment of who gains and who loses across class, age and gender; what the implications for labour are; what economic and social relations exist with areas around the new farms; and what patterns of differentiation and class formation unfold as a result of new investments.

Getting it right: research and action

Land grabs are politically charged, and rigorous approaches to measuring and analysing them are vital. Both quick, approximate techniques and long, more elaborate approaches have their place, as discussed in a conference session which brought together academics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) and City University New York with representatives from the Land Matrix Project, GRAIN and Oxfam. The success of the conference suggests a real respectful, informed and engaged dialogue is possible between academics, activists and policymakers.

As one of the world's most challenging and pressing issues, there is now no shortage of informed, scholarly debate on 'the global land grab'. It is to be hoped that exchanges between researchers and practitioners, of which this conference was one example, will lead not only to understanding but also to action, as new alliances and networks are formed across the globe.