Warning of unrest, new study shows millions risk losing lands in Africa

Published on Food Crisis and the Global Land Grab, Press release, February 01, 2012.

New studies released in London today suggest that the frenzied sell-off of forests and other prime lands to buyers hungry for the developing world’s natural resources risk sparking widespread civil unrest—unless national leaders and investors recognize the customary rights of millions of poor people who have lived on and worked these lands for centuries.

“Controversial land acquisitions were a key factor triggering the civil wars in Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and there is every reason to be concerned that conditions are ripe for new conflicts to occur in many other places,” said Jeffrey Hatcher, director of global programs for the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), which sponsored an expert panel today at the Royal Society on the trends shaping rural lands and rights worldwide.

In presenting the results of an analysis of tenure rights in 35 African countries, by international land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily, Hatcher noted that despite the clear potential for bloodshed, “local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa.” Alden Wily’s review found that the majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land, including forests, rangelands or marshlands, are claimed by states, but held in common by communities, affecting “a minimum” of 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa. “Every corner of every state has a customary owner,” Alden Wily concluded.1 … //

… The Customary Rights to Forests, Rangelands and Marshlands:

Of the 35 African nations covered in Alden Wily’s analysis, only nine got high marks for being “broadly positive” for their treatment of local, customary rights. The others were graded either “mixed” or “negative.” The nations ranked “most positive” were Uganda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Southern Sudan. But even in those countries, Alden Wily said, the laws are not respected in practice, and local communities are rarely included in negotiating the terms of a purchase or lease, even in countries where laws recognize such lands as private property.

“With the speed and scale of this surge into Africa in the last five years, the chief concern should be that investors are cutting deals with governments for land that really belongs to individual rural communities,” said Alden Wily, who was interviewed in advance of the RRI event in London.

“The new land rush increasingly looks like a final enclosure of the world’s common lands,” said panel moderator Fred Pearce, environment writer and author of the upcoming book, The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth. “Throughout the developing world, traditional rights to land and resources are being steamrollered in the name of a warped and outdated view of economic development.”

White said that engaging investors will be key to protecting the land rights of local communities, and that, in turn, will be critical to achieving the goals of slowing climate change, ensuring food security, and reducing poverty embraced by negotiators and advocates at United Nations meetings such as December’s COP-17 in Durban.

“Investors have much to lose if they fail to consider the customary rights of local communities,” White said. “Civil unrest will be the outcome, and it will affect their bottom line. So respecting and strengthening tenure rights is a win-win for investors, and for the people who currently view the vast forests and pastures of the developing world as their own.”

Experts said it’s too early to predict whether the spate of land deals recently negotiated in sub-Saharan Africa will produce widespread and destabilizing conflicts. But relatively few large-scale enterprises are fully established, White noted, so the people who will be affected by the deals have yet to realize their forests, marshes and rangelands have been sold or leased.

“Communities often do not find out what is going on until the bulldozers arrive,” White said.

Increasingly, however, local communities and the NGOs that support them are learning more about their rights and how to enforce them … (full long text).

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