Once plentiful, land has become scarce, and competition fierce. The district population has been growing fast………. Youths struggle to find any land to sustain their new families. In some villages, it is difficult to get even one hectare. In the village of Amanikrom a young man eager to farm could only get a fifth of a hectare. So the landless youth work their way up by starting as labourers or sharecroppers. In the past, sharecropping attracted migrants only from other parts of the country. Today, young members of the landowning family have to resort to sharecropping too. Meanwhile, much land is in the hands of absentee landlords who work in Accra and use part of their wages to pay for agricultural labourers.
That is from Lorenzo Cotula’s recent book on land grabbing in Africa. For those of you who consider this to be a third world problem: read the segment above one more time, but replace “land” with “housing”, “fifth of a hectare” with “studio apartment”, “sharecropping” with “renting”, and “agricultural labourers” with “council-approved extensions.”
Most governments enjoy the ability to rely onÂ eminent domain whenever land needs to be acquired for large scale development projects. China, a country where one would expect this sort of power to be exerted all the time, appears to be home to a surprising number of `nail houses‘ – property where owners refused compensation from private investors and refused to move out. If the government doesn’t exercise eminent domain and compensation cannot be agreed on, investors often go ahead anyway and build around the remaining property. There result is striking and more than a little funny –Â I stumbled across this collection of photos of Chinese nail houses (and a few from the US and Europe) on io9 – a few examples:
It’s hard to know how to feel about these situations. For the past few years I’ve been working on a project that has been trying to extent formal property rights to slum residents in Dar es Salaam. I’ve often sold the benefits as being primarily expropriation-related, but several seminar attendees have (rightly) pointed out that sometimes it’s better off for society if people can’t, on the margin, hold out for enormous compensation amounts. This opens up the enormous can of worms which is the rights-versus-efficiency debate, something I’m not going to get into at the moment. Yet, it’s still worth pointing out that this issue is far from straightforward: we want large investment projects to be successful, and to do so they need land. We also don’t want to trample on the rights of owners, especially the poor, especially when compensation is often neither fair nor transparently handled.
Large scale land purchases get some more media attention, this time from Jonathan Glennie over at The Guardian:
“A newÂ report on land acquisitionÂ by the Munden Project/Rights and Resources Institute brings an important angle to the land “grab” debate. Rather than focusing on the ethics of land grabbing, the report makes the business case for working with local communities, arguing that failure to inform or fairly compensate affected locals heightens the risks to investors. Why? Because affected communities start to make life difficult for abusive or lazy companies, leading to massive unexpected costs or even an eventual full-scale retreat.
What is slightly disconcerting is that Glennie managed to write an entire article on land grabs while only using the world “government” once. NGOs and the media have largely painted the land grabbing story as a situation where evil companies are parachuting in and snatching land away (for example,Â check outÂ Oxfam’s recent campaigning). In reality, land acquisitions which circumvent local property rights are only possible when governments themselves are incompetent, corrupt or overly-impatient. Of course campaigners realise this, but it’s much easier to set this up as story of evil capitalism than it is of governance, the latter being harder to sell and even harder to treat. I’m not trying to pick on Glennie for leaving out a lengthy discussion of governance in his article, but it would be nice for people to start using the g-word a bit more.