Local people may be neglected
There is little international policing of land deals.
“International corporations are subject to domestic and international trade rules and treaties, but when it comes to what a country does with its land, that strikes at the core of national sovereignty,” Wolford said.
In 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations released voluntary guidelines, urging investors to first think about the rights and needs of the people and communities where the land is located.
Franco said the guidelines were strongly framed by human rights. But they have no teeth.
“Capitalist firms are not Boy Scouts, and they are unlikely to place moral codes and ‘good governance’ above the interests and demands of their owners or shareholders,” according to a paper published last year by researchers at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands.
Few land deals have progressed to production, said Philip Woodhouse, a professor at the University of Manchester who specializes in social and political research in Africa. But some regions have already seen land deals spur water-driven tension.
A plantation in Ethiopia’s Gambela region, owned by a Saudi Arabian billionaire, diverts water from the Alwero River, according to a June 2012 report from GRAIN, a non-profit organization that advocates for small farmers. The Alwero River is important for thousands of people in the region – for farming and fishing. In April 2012, a group ambushed and killed five people at the Saudi billionaire’s company over Alwero diversions, according to the report.
D’Odorico’s study points to Sudan where land is usually grabbed on the banks of the Blue Nile – heavily sought after spots in an otherwise dry place. And while this may bolster overall farming capacity in regions, it pushes out small farmers.
In Sudan “the local population is becoming increasingly dependent on food aid and international food subsidies,” because the land grabbers are pushing out small farming, according to D’Odorico’s study.
Some of the land grabbed was savannahs and forests, suggesting that the grabbing also may contribute to deforestation in developing countries, D’Odorico’s said.
Land has become “a hugely sensitive political issue throughout Africa,” Woodhouse said. He said it is still unclear – with limited deals moving to production – if the deals will help or hurt small farmers. A 2011 study he co-authored found that while some investment in sub-Saharan Africa could strengthen water capacity for local people, the “impacts are likely to be far more extensive than might be anticipated from the area of land occupied.”
So why are governments interested in selling and leasing the land off to foreign investors?