Oxfam Warns of a Global “Land Rush” Pushing Thousands Into Poverty

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Oxfam, the international relief and development organization, issued a deeply investigated report today detailing the effects of nearly a decade of land grabs in some of the poorest parts of the world. “Land and Power” claims that many of these large-scale land acquisitions — some technically illegal and carried out in large part by individual or consortiums of investors from the West — force thousands of locals into hunger and poverty. They have “resulted in dispossession, deception, violation of human rights, and destruction of livelihoods.”

The land in question amounts to some 227 million hectares — what would be a sizeable chunk of Western Europe — acquired since 2001, with much of it in Africa. Many of the purchases scrutinized took place in the last few years, a consequence, says Rohit Malpani, a senior campaigns adviser for Oxfam, of the Great Recession. Investors are keen to trade off the rise in global commodity prices. Compared to other sectors, says Malpani, “agriculture is a pretty good bet and land in places like Sub-Saharan Africa is very cheap.”

These speculative investments have in some cases been authorized in hasty acts of avarice by local officials or community grandees with little responsibility or accountability to those who actually live and depend on the land. In other instances, governments aren’t doing enough to safeguard the interests and well-being of the sometimes poor, peripheral communities whose land is being auctioned away. And while many Western investors and corporations dress up their acquisitions in noble terms, promising prosperity and growth, the report highlights five case studies where mass land transfers have only proven disastrous for local communities — creating what Oxfam terms “reverse development.”

Here’s an anecdote from Uganda:

Christine (not her real name) and her husband used to grow enough food to feed their eight children on the six hectares of land that they had farmed for over 20 years. By selling the surplus at the market, they could afford to send their children to school. Instead of living in their old six-room home, complete with kitchen, they now struggle to pay rent for a cramped two-room house, where there is not enough land to farm and grow food. Christine’s children often eat only once a day and are no longer receiving an education, as it is too expensive. She and her husband were once self-sufficient, but now depend on the goodwill of friends and neighbours and whatever casual labour can be found. Christine is among more than twenty thousand people who claim that they have been evicted from their homes and land in Kiboga district, and nearby Mubende district, to make way for UK-based New Forests Company (NFC) plantations.

Oxfam documented testimony from others among the roughly 22,500 evictees, many of whom are now destitute, having received little to no compensation. NFC boasts of its eco-friendliness and social responsibility and has since announced it will investigate Oxfam’s allegations, but, as the report points out, what transpired here is a sign of a general lack of transparency in the way many of these land purchases are conducted and a sign of the shortcomings of governmental and international structures already in place to monitor such transactions.

What’s at stake is huge. This global land rush is taking place at a moment when food prices have soared around the world, making daily subsistence difficult for hundreds of millions of people. Investors’ imperatives — to set up massive plantations for biofuel or even let fallow land sit until it gets spun off in another deal — rarely jive with the needs of locals. Achieving justice and safeguarding the future of some of the world’s most vulnerable won’t be easy. In a press release directed toward NFC, Oxfam’s executive director Jeremy Hobbs says NFC “must wake up to the reality that something went terribly wrong in Uganda and that it has a responsibility to make amends. Only then can the men, women and children who are now struggling to survive get compensation and alternative land and begin to piece their lives back together.” And, judging from the evidence, this is just one forsaken community among countless others.