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Why land deals must not be done in secret ? and how to make them more open

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 4 May 2012 11:43 GMT
Author: megan-macinnes
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By Megan MacInnes

Imagine being woken in the middle of the night by bull-dozers destroying your garden. When you go to investigate, a man from the government tells you that your house and garden have been sold to a foreign company, along with the rest of your street. They’re clearing the area to build a factory; all part of the country’s economic boom. You have no right of reply, you can’t see the documents behind the deal, and you won’t be getting any compensation. And if you don’t go quietly, soldiers will make you wish you had.

Seems unbelievable in this day and age, doesn’t it? But versions of this scenario are taking place more and more often across the developing world, as population growth, industrialisation, consumption and financial speculation drive an increasingly competitive market for land.

Land is needed for everything from food to rubber to biofuels to oil palm plantations – the raw materials of consumption in the rich world. And global demand is expected to rise, especially in parts of the world where economies are booming but laws are weak and land rights insecure.

The market is moving much faster than regulators can, making for a very murky business. Even the World Bank, which hosted a conference on land and poverty last week, says certain investors are deliberately targeting areas with bad governance for high stakes land deals. These deals are done behind closed doors, without consulting the people most affected. Environmental damage and human rights are paid lip service at best, and often disregarded completely. 

There’s a growing recognition of the need to regulate these massive land deals, but very little consensus on how to actually do it. This gap in thinking is what a new report from Global Witness, the International Land Coalition and Oakland Institute aims to address. It takes stock of the situation on the ground, reviews international standards, looks at previous efforts to open up commodity markets like oil and minerals, and assesses what might actually work for land.

How land deals are done varies by context but the core problem remains simple – secrecy. If someone is taking your land but you don’t know who or why, it’s very difficult to know who to complain to. Which makes the fundamental solution simple, too. The culture of secrecy in which communities with little power or information have to prove that they are suffering in order to find out anything about the deal, needs to change. Instead, companies and governments must disclose contracts and other key information about a deal, leaving out only those clauses with are commercially sensitive.

So the end is clear, but getting there will take a lot of time and effort. To equip policy makers and civil society, the report proposes four key interventions. Existing legitimate claims to land must be recognised before investment proposals are considered; free, prior, and informed consent should be sought for proposed deals from affected communities affected; contracts, maps and other information about the deal must be publicly disclosed; and civil society must be involved in oversight mechanisms that have real teeth.

But  improving transparency isn’t just about disclosing information; it is also about ensuring that local communities can access, understand and use it to hold decision-makers to account. This report provides examples from around the world on how this can be done, showing what kind of information has helped at what stage in the process in countries from Laos to Liberia.

Some say that disclosure will prove commercially damaging for companies and governments. But this report shows that land investors would actually benefit from a level playing field. It reduces the risks of corruption and damaging conflicts with communities. It would also enable governments to negotiate better, more informed deals when allocating commercial rights to land.

How we manage our most fundamental and finite natural resource could hardly matter to more people. We need to get it right now, and this report shows that making disclosure the rule rather than the exception is the only place to start.

Megan MacInnes is Head of Land Campaigns at Global Witness

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