Whose Land Is It Anyway?

March 13, 2014

By Joanna Mackenzie

An article featured in a recent Global Food Ethics Project News Roundup highlighted the African country of Malawi’s decision to join the G8 Summit’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN). Malawi, one the of poorest countries in the world – with over 40% of population living on $1.25 per day, is a landlocked nation with poor infrastructure, and high rates of HIV/AIDS, infant mortality and malnutrition.

The NAFSN is the G8 Summit’s most recent initiative to alleviate food insecurity and poverty through private and public global investment in developing countries. The aim of NAFSN is to lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022.

In exchange for financial aid, recipient countries must agree to certain pro-food security and pro-investment policies, one of which is to make land more accessible to investors. For example, the Malawi government agreed to open up 200,000 hectares of land to foreign investment as part of their commitment to NAFSN.

By joining NAFSN, Malawi hopes to alleviate food insecurity by increasing production of diverse, nutritious crops, investing in national nutrition programs, developing agribusiness cooperatives, establishing local infrastructure, increasing national income from exports and creating a hospitable environment for foreign investment.

Most of the two dozen or so private companies that have made investment commitments to Malawi are Malawi-based companies, with the exception of a few big names, such as Monsanto, Standard Bank, and Africa’s biggest sugar producer, Illovo.

Critics argue that in exchange for aid, infrastructure development and access to international markets NAFSN promotes “land-grabbing”. This derogatory term refers to investors purchasing vast tracts of land in developing companies.

In addition to private investors, land-grabbing is commonly practiced by governments of richer developing countries that face food insecurity due to swelling populations or climate change, such as Saudi Arabia and China. Other types of land-grabbing include purchasing land for agro-fuels, water resources, technological parks, urban expansion, tourism, and nature conservancy.

The land for sale by the developing government is usually labeled as “under-utilized,” implying that it is vacant or idle. However, often times this land is being used by indigenous farmers and smallholders who have no legal property rights but depend on the land for their livelihood.

Although it might be argued that purchasing land for investment purposes is not wrong, in and of itself, moral concerns are raised when large scale land is being sold by governments that don’t have a legal framework to protect landless smallholders, farmers and peasants or provide them with a pathway to property rights.

Opponents of NAFSN, such as the African Food Sovereignty Alliance argue that land-grabbing displaces indigenous peoples, undermines local food systems, and destroys livelihoods and cultural heritage. Buying land to produce food to export from countries with large populations of both food-insecure and hungry people raises additional ethical concerns. In some cases farmers are being persuaded to switch from food crops to cash crops, which could worsen food insecurity by resulting in higher food costs in the local market. They also point out that the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure and Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment, which NAFSN supports, do not offer sufficient safeguards against the potential for abuse. This is because voluntary guidelines do not mandate policy commitments to protect smallholders from land grabs.

In Malawi, the background situation with respect to land rights, tenure and use raises additional concerns. This country has a history of unfair land use that pre-dates participation in the G8 summit’s NAFSN and is characterized by a system in which politicians have routinely sold “ownerless” land occupied by smallholders to elites in order to garner political support.

Some fear that the recent land deals Malawi is making to participate in NAFSN will perpetuate unequal land use, as Malawi has still not enacted land reform policies that were introduced in 2002.

In Malawi, approximately 60% of the land is untitled, or customary, and is governed by local chiefs who administer “user rights” to the locals. The concern is that upcoming land deals are being made without a legal framework to protect land rights of indigenous peoples, informing the public, or seeking input from local farmers about the NAFSN initiatives that already started to roll out in December of 2013.

The intent of NAFSN is to help countries like Malawi elevate their economies from poverty. However, it seems ironic that the initiative meant to alleviate poverty requires that participating countries protect investors but makes no binding stipulations for the legal protection of the most vulnerable groups in society whose bargaining power is weak.

Joanna Mackenzie is a Registered Dietitian and Research Assistant for the Global Food Ethics Project at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  She is also working towards obtaining an MSPH in Health Education and Communication from the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She received a B.S. in Nutrition Science from Russell Sage College in 2010.  Prior to coming to Hopkins, Joanna was a Public Health Nutritionist for the New York State Child and Adult Care Food Program. Previous work included using nutrition interventions to enhance the quality of life of HIV/AIDS populations in upstate New York.

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