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Land Rights

The purchase and lease of vast tracts of land from poor, developing countries by wealthier nations and international private investors has led to debate about whether land investment is a tool for development or force of displacement.

Overview

Secure land tenure is not just crucial to have a place to call home — it is also the basis of the livelihood for billions of people, especially Indigenous communities, farmers, herders, and fisherfolk. For the majority in this world, land is the common good, which communities share, preserve, and manage collectively.

However, following the 2007-2008 high food price crisis and financial crisis. looking for the next commodity to invest in, “investors” including multinational corporations, private equity firms, and pension funds, swarmed in to take over lands around the world. Their goal has been to convert smallholder farms, grasslands, and forests into monoculture plantations, cattle ranches, and mines.

Faced with this threat, local communities and Indigenous groups have been on the frontline in the struggle against land grabbing and destructive practices. Their claim over land and their resistance to its takeover is viewed as an obstacle to investment and business. This is why many governments around the world are encouraged to adopt the Western capitalist notion of private land ownership. Adopting this notion would make land a commodity and lead to the creation of land markets so that land can be leased or sold and put into so-called “productive use” to “unlock its value.” The World Bank is a key actor in the push to privatize and commodify land. In 2017, its Enabling the Business of Agriculture report prescribed policy measures to governments in order to “enhance the productivity of land use” and encourage agribusiness expansion. These included formalizing private property rights, easing the sale and lease of land for commercial use, and systematizing the sale of public land by auction.

However, the lack of evidence of development outcomes associated with the introduction of private title systems makes it clear that the privatization of land has nothing to do with fighting poverty or improving livelihoods. The “creation” of land markets has actually been repeatedly found to solidify existing inequalities in access to land. Within a market system where land is nothing more than a commodity, corporations and wealthy individuals can price farmers and herders, who rely on land for their livelihoods, out of the markets.

Whether it is through large-scale extractive or agricultural projects, urban expansion, or privatization schemes that transform land into a marketable commodity, the threats to land rights are multiple and severe, driving the displacement of local communities and the destruction of their livelihoods.

What we are doing about it
  • The Oakland Institute is a leading voice on land rights issues, working on the front line of the struggle to defend land rights, uncovering the drivers, the actors, and the impacts of land grabbing around the world.

  • Through research, policy analysis, and advocacy campaigns, we work directly with communities to defend their land rights when threatened by governments, private corporations, and international development institutions.

  • On the policy level, the Institute produces research and evidence that promote tenure systems, which ensure the land rights of communities, Indigenous Peoples, farmers, and pastoralists.

Publications

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Development Aid to Ethiopia: Overlooking Violence, Marginalization, and Political Repression

Ethiopia is a locus of international attention in the Horn of Africa due to both its consistently high rates of economic growth and for its continued problems with widespread hunger and poverty. The nation is also significant for being among the most dependent on foreign aid. Topping the worldwide list of countries receiving aid from the US, UK, and the World Bank, the nation has been receiving $3.5 billion on average from international donors...

Herakles Exposed: The Truth behind Herakles Farms False Promises in Cameroon

A new report exposes the significant discrepancies between how Herakles Farms has represented their palm oil plantation project in Cameroon to the public and what it is telling prospective investors and creditors.

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Eco-Skies: The Global Rush for Aviation Biofuel

The aviation industry has high hopes for biofuels. As its profits are increasingly threatened by erratic fossil fuel prices, and as consumers are more and more concerned with the role of aviation in climate change, biofuels are being billed as the path to both profitability and sustainability. Unfortunately, emerging evidence suggests that as airlines rush to procure biofuel, they do so at the expense of people and the environment.

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Omo: Local Tribes Under Threat

The Lower Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia is internationally renowned for its unique cultural and ecological landscape. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Lower Omo Valley contains two national parks and is home to approximately 200,000 agro-pastoralists made up of some of Africa’s most unique and traditional ethnic groups, including the Kwegu, Bodi, Suri, Mursi, Nyangatom, Hamer, Karo, and Dassenach, among others.

Unheard Voices: The Human Rights Impact of Land Investments on Indigenous Communities in Gambella

Millions of acres of Ethiopia’s most fertile land are being made available to investors, often in long-term leases and at giveaway prices. Although proponents of these investments call them “win-win” deals, the reality proves much different. To make way for agricultural investment, and through its so-called villagization program, the Ethiopian government has forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from their lands. This...

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Blog

Time for Action to Stop Land Grabs in Papua New Guinea

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 Peiley Lau

Two recent events suggest a promising reversal of land grabbing in Papua New Guinea (PNG). In the past 12 years, the amount of customary land in PNG decreased from 97 percent to 86 percent. This is because although customary land cannot be sold under PNG law, legal mechanisms, such as the Special Agricultural Business Lease (SABL) scheme, were developed for foreign investors to access the land. The SABL is a lease-lease back scheme established...

What is World Bank’s Business with Agriculture?

Friday, April 11, 2014 Alice Martin-Prével

In 2012, the G8 called for the World Bank “to develop options for generating a Doing Business in Agriculture index.” With funding from the Gates Foundation, the UK, US, and Dutch and Danish governments, the project emerged in 2013 under the name Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA). The BBA methodology builds on its model indicator, the Doing Business ranking, which was developed by the Bank almost 12 years ago with very damaging...

The World Bank’s Doing Business Rankings: Relinquishing Sovereignty for a Good Grade

Monday, April 7, 2014 Peiley Lau

Launched in 2003, the World Bank’s annual Doing Business (DB) ranking system rates 189 countries on the “ease of doing business” within the country and pressures them to achieve higher rankings in subsequent reports by enacting neoliberal regulatory reforms. Despite its positive veneer, the report encourages governments to eliminate economic, social, and environmental safeguards and promotes competition among countries for higher rankings and,...

Development Fairytales: A Foreign Firm’s Story in Senegal

Thursday, March 6, 2014 Jettie Word

Large companies across the world are invading rural areas in developing countries, allegedly responding to a need for economic development, food security, and poverty alleviation. Such is the narrative of Senhuile, a shadowy company backed by a maze of foreign investors, which is operating in the natural protected area of Ndiaël in northwest Senegal. By establishing an agricultural plantation on land already used by rural communities, this...

Wall Street Wants Our Food System

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 Lukas Ross

Just look at the billions pouring into farmland from some of the deepest pockets in the financial sector. Rising interest from institutional investors such as hedge funds, pensions, and private equity firms is changing farmland from a mostly overlooked asset class into a potential global bubble. And, although media attention often falls on land deals in the developing world that are corrupt or even violent, the truth is that the global land rush...

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