development human rights

The reality of land grabs

I’ve written before about land leasing deals, the phenomenon of countries or companies leasing large tracts of other (usually poorer) countries in order to grow food or biofuels. There are hundreds of deals going on – Madagascar alone has 9 different deals on the go, mostly to grow jatropha. Many of these global land deals are legitimate and negotiated in a transparent fashion. Others are more dubious, riddled with corruption or cutting local people out of the loop.

One of the biggest problems is displaced populations. In many developing countries there is no formal land ownership structure, certainly not in rural areas. People might not legally own the land they live on, even if they’ve been there for generations. That makes them very easy to move on, and the authorities are under no obligation to give them due warning or compensate them in any way.

The reality of this on the ground can be pretty terrifying. The following video was filmed in Guatemala, where families were given minutes to leave their homes, which were then burned to make sure they didn’t come back.

Oxfam’s current campaign on land grabs is targeted at the World Bank, which is funding many of the schemes. It is urging them to put a moratorium in place until a code is drawn up to ensure that land leasing is conducted fairly. Leasing land is not wrong in itself, and with a proper set of standards in place it could bring benefits to both the investor and the local community. But until those standards are in place, the whole process is open to abuse.


  1. This is a disgrace, thanks for the links. Obviously some countries recognise that growing food is going to be a problem thanks to climate change, peak oil and rising population.

    1. Yes, there’s been a big rush in land deals since the 2008 spike in food prices, especially from countries with little arable land of their own – Japan, Korea, Middle Eastern countries in particular.

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