By Thin Lei Win
As large-scale land purchases for food production, long-term investment and speculation become commonplace, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is finalising a set of guidelines for the private sector, governments and civil society to help improve land-tenure governance and encourage transparency in deals.
Six years in the making, the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land and other Natural Resources could be adopted by FAO member states during the 37th session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in October, following intergovernmental negotiations on the guidelines prior to the session.
“Land is our most valuable resource,” FAO said in its online brochure on the guidelines. “It is the means of life without which we could never have existed and on which our continued existence and progress depend.”
FAO said it prepared the guidelines as a response to increasing pressure on land and natural resources “as new areas are cultivated, occupied by urban extension and abandoned because of degradation, climate change and violent conflicts.”
Making headlines over the past few years, large land acquisitions in developing countries have been fuelled mainly by concerns about food shortages, the biofuel boom and the rising scarcity and monetary value of agricultural land.
Critics say these ‘land grabs,’ by both local and foreign investors, give scant regards to land rights that are already weak in many of these countries.
Case studies confirm many land investments feature weak governance and a failure to recognise, protect, or properly compensate local communities’ land rights. It is usually the rural poor who suffer the most, when the land they have relied on for food and for their livelihood for generations is taken away and when they are not sufficiently compensated.
Two-thirds of the world’s poor are rural and most are engaged in farming, according to the World Bank, making land ownership and governance equally a matter of food security, poverty reduction, human rights and equitable access to resources.
Responsible governance of land could help reduce hunger and poverty and support social and economic development, the FAO said, while weak governance “discourages social stability, investment, widespread economic growth, and sustainable use of the environment.”
Experts say most countries currently do not have legal or procedural mechanisms in place to protect local rights and, even if they do, customary rural land tenure is ignored, not formalised and/or not legally protected.
In addition, land deals are often not transparent, creating opportunities for corruption.
While there are no central databases or detailed statistics to gauge exactly how big the problem is, a World Bank report last year found land demand to be “enormous” and identified large-scale farmland deals covering 56 million hectares in less than a year.
It said the average annual expansion of agricultural land before 2008 was less than 4 million hectares.
WILL IT HAVE TEETH?
The FAO said such increased land competition underlines a need for effective institutions laying out clear rules, improved coordination, conflict prevention and protection for legally-weaker groups.
The voluntary guidelines will undoubtedly fulfil a much-needed role: They will recognize both statutory and customary property tenure and address gender imbalance – where women are the main producers of food but have weaker rights to the land they’re working on.
But FAO has said the guidelines are not a reaction to ‘land grabs,’ nor are they defence against large-scale land purchases.
Being voluntary, they will not establish legally binding obligations nor replace existing national or international laws, treaties or agreements.
But the organisation is confident they will be effective.
“We consider that international ‘soft law’ (such as voluntary guidelines) can sometimes have advantages over binding international instruments,” Paul Mathieu, senior officer at the FAO’s land tenure team, told TrustLaw.
He said experience has shown they have had an impact in guiding national policy and national legislation in many countries.
“It is usually easier for countries to reach agreement for soft law instruments compared with binding instruments,” he added, “and as a result they can be more comprehensive, detailed and better suited to technical matters and best practices.”