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Locals need more legal rights in big African land deals - report

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sun, 21 Apr 2013 11:16 PM
Author: Chelsea Diana
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Can legal reforms help affected communities have a bigger say about African land deals?

As negative impacts of large commercial land acquisitions are exposed, people who feel wronged by them are becoming more engaged and searching for ways to take action, research shows. Ensuring they have, and know about, legal rights could help, experts say.

Large-scale land deals in can offer benefits, such as job opportunities, market access and infrastructure improvements, supporters say. But critics note that they also can lead to local people losing control of land, and can spur economic conflict in local communities.

A report, published by the International Institute for Environmental Development (IIED) this month, looks at the ways citizens respond when they see land deals as unjust. These efforts include letter writing, requesting an audience with authorities, forming negotiating groups and using the courts to work through their legal options, as well as staging protests.

Looking at the legal frameworks in 12 African countries, including Mozambique, Tanzania and Liberia, and 16 large-scale land deals, the research found too few legal options available for local groups in comparison to laws protecting investors, governments and communities.  

“We need to understand more about the accountability weaknesses in different contexts – such as the imbalances in legal frameworks and the ways in which political interests affect deals,” said Emily Polack, the report’s lead author and an IIED researcher, in a press release. “We also need to understand what options citizens have to seek greater accountability – and how to strengthen the mechanisms they can use as well as their ability to use them.”

While legal frameworks provide some opportunities for protecting land rights of rural populations in Africa, many of the frameworks are linked to recent reforms recognising customary land rights, or to freedom of information legislation, human rights law and transnational litigation.

Reforms have provided a basis for some lawsuits aimed at challenging land deals, but the laws for the most part do not directly address many important issues. Many land deal negotiations happen between investors and governments behind closed doors without a say from landowners, the report’s authors said.

“On one hand, international investment law is strong and offers great protection to investors who seek to acquire large areas of land,” said Lorenzo Cotula, a senior researcher at IIED, in a press release. “On the other, international human rights laws tend not to be very effective in protecting the rights of poor communities.”

Meanwhile, some features of national laws provide the basis for recognising rights and accountability but they can also “legitimise abuses of power against the powerless,” he said.

Many communities have limited say in the processing of land allocation by government and customary authorities, the study said.

To seek more accountability about decisions being made, locals have sought action with farming associations, media attention, and help from local, national and international non-government groups. Some have registered complaints with local authorities, and reacted with public protests and even violence.

While some displays of citizen action were marked in all 16 case studies, it is not the case that citizens always mobilise when they see injustice in land deals. A lack of mobilisation could be rooted in low levels of local organization, little knowledge of rights, lack of understanding of authority and a weak capacity to express demands, the study found.

“Improved public accountability is critical to democracy as it enables local people to voice their concerns about large-scale land deals,” said Adrian Di Giovanni of the International Development Research Centre, which contributed to the report. “It discourages harmful investments and makes it more likely that everyone involved will gain from incoming investment.”

Chelsea Diana is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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