Is the land grab debate a proxy war?

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Is the land grab debate about property rights or consolidation?

So much to write, but so little time to do so. Instead I’d just like to end the week with a quick thought on the evolution of the land grabs debate. I’ve been slowly picking my way through Lorenzo Cotula’s fairly comprehensive book on large scale land acquisitions, an I was stuck by the following passage:

“Also, in some cases it is difficult to tell whether a reported deal relates to a new plantation, or to the acquisition of an existing plantation – for example, where a state farm is privatized. The two types of deals would have very different consequences for pressures on land, though even acquiring an existing farm can increase land competition – for instance, if an old state farm has been partly occupied by squatters who are evicted following the privatization, or if the deal involves expanding the existing plantation.”

Cotula is reflecting on the difficulties of discerning land purchases in the Land Matrix which involve some form of consolidation (land owner by multiple smallholder farmers being converted into large-scale farms) and those which do not change the scale of land ownership. This is an important distinction, as it implies entirely different concerns over large scale land acquisitions.

For a large part, the land grab debate has been presented as an issue of property rights: rural communities are having their (possibly customary) rights to land violated when governments lease or sell the land to large national or international firms. This implies direct welfare losses from losing control of a productive asset – imagine if someone showed up and stole your laptop or your main mode of transport (or your house).

But there is a second issue here: even if property rights were perfectly enforced  and all large scale land acquisitions were both fair and voluntary, they would still involve a significant amount of land consolidation, with smallholder plots being converted into much, much large farms. This raises an important question: once we sort out the rights issues, what form of agriculture would we actually like to encourage in these settings?

It is no secret that many NGOs, such as Oxfam, have a bias towards smallholder farming (let’s lead aside whether or not that bias is justified or not, it could very well be). Is the current onslaught on large scale land deals by these NGOs purely about protecting the rights of people, or is this just another front in a much larger war on land consolidation?

2 thoughts on “Is the land grab debate a proxy war?

  1. gawain kripke

    October 21, 2013 at 12:45pm

    This is a useful question, but I don’t think there’s a dark agenda behind Oxfam’s positions on land grabs. Although you’ll find a very healthy debate within Oxfam about big v. small agriculture, productions models. For some exposure to that debate – which we are encouraging and supporting see:

    http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/campaigns/future-agriculture-debate-experts
    and
    http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/policy/future-agriculture

    But on land grabs, our position isn’t about broader or a “larger war on land consolidation” but rather ensuring that small agriculturalists and poor people have access to the tools and assets they need to survive and improve their well-being.

  2. Matt

    October 21, 2013 at 1:40pm

    Hi Gawain,

    Perhaps I sounded too critical of the smallholder bias (or, as Alex Cobham suggested, `preference’) – but I should have made clear that jury is still out on this one. However, while I completely agree with your assertion that Oxfam’s preference is to ensure that small agriculturalists maintain and improve their well-being, I think you at least have to acknowledge that Oxfam does have a preference for the smallholder model, as evidenced by your last sentence (as opposed to, for example, getting people out of agriculture). Still, I am reassured to see that there is still some internal debate going on.

    I also just wanted to highlight that these are issues that should be considered – that the land grabs debate should also be about consolidation, and that we need to recognise that. Olivier De Schutter, made this point at a recent panel at the LSE this summer.

    Anyway, thanks for engaging constructively – I’m afraid I can’t say the same for some of your British colleagues.

    https://twitter.com/benphillips76/status/391845669725818880

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