Environment:  Land

‘Land grabs’ | Palm oil | Initiatives | The information ‘gap’ | Resources

Land ownership and distributions in Africa has, and continues to be, contentious. The large-scale colonisation and subsequent independence movements that the continent has seen makes ownership both a complex and emotive issue. The problem is all the more acute given the fact that most Africans are still directly dependent on land for their income, much of which is either communally owner or been passed down through generations without formal documentation detailing ownership.

‘Land grabs’

Despite inhabiting and farming land for generations many African communities are struggling to secure land ownership rights because of informal regulation and lack of documentation. | Source : Panos / Giacomo Pirozzi

Despite inhabiting and farming land for generations many African communities are struggling to secure land ownership rights because of informal regulation and lack of documentation.
| Source : Panos / Giacomo Pirozzi

Whilst the acquisition of territory by foreign parties is far from a new phenomenon, ‘Land grabbing’ has become the commonly used term for the aggressive process of large-scale land acquisitions in developing countries by domestic and transnational companies, governments, banks and private investors. It is the speed, scale and opaque nature of many of these deals, as well as debate over the benefits accrued by local populations that continue to make the practice controversial. Africa, with its abundant resources, varied geography and ample potential for expansion has become the favoured target for such ‘land-grabbers’ with almost half of all such documented behaviour thought to have occurred on the continent. Understandably, the governments of many African states are keen to attract such foreign investment from cash rich but land poor nations. However, in many instances such acquisition brings with it the risk of various forms of exploitation. Extremely generous tax breaks of 10 to 16 years and large swathes of land available for ‘free’ of at heavily discounted rates that many governments have granted may succeed in attracting investors and the indirect benefits they bring but at potentially unsustainable costs. These include;

  • environmental damage
  • rights violations
  • conflicts over ownership of land, water and resources

Often,  such problems stem from the unequal footings of the parties involved; usually multilateral corporations with huge budgets against local residents who have little access to effective methods of recourse for their grievances. The complex holding arrangements employed by many of these companies makes it in some circumstances near impossible to determine who exactly is responsible for such actions.

There appear to be two major factors driving the process of land grabbing; the emergence of palm oil as a internationally valuable commodity and increased global demand for food.

Palm oil

Palm oil is a common component in many of the products we use daily,  including;

  • cooking oils
  • food production
  • cleaning agents
  • pharmaceuticals

How green is biofuel?

However, it is mainly palm oil’s derivative as a biofuel that is stimulating demand. In 2010 the EU ratified the Renewable Energy Directive which made alternative fuels integral an integral part of the organisation’s energy policy. The consumption of biofuels in the region alone is therefore expected to double between 2010 and 2020. However, such policy does not seem to acknowledge that the production of such alternative energy source involves the large-scale clearance of land, usually forests, in tropical areas to make way for vast palm oil plantations. The great irony is that production of this supposedly ‘green’ fuel is extremely damaging to the forests that act as carbon sinks and reduce the harmful emissions this form of energy is designed to mitigate. Additionally, the cycle of growth of these plants is such that after 25 years the surrounding soil is exhausted and unusable. Once such position is reached developers, and the investment they bring with them, inevitably move on.

Whilst South East Asia has traditionally dominated palm oil production (Malaysia and Indonesia account for some 85% of global palm growth alone) environmental concerns are hindering future cultivation. In May this year Indonesia decided to extend its two year moratorium which protects its forests from development whilst Malaysia has implemented its own protective measures that severely hamper the expansion of palm oil cultivation. Such policies mean that the global palm oil industry is running out of useable land. To this end Africa, with its plentiful room for expansion, has found itself the courted by multinational producers. The Congo Basin in particular has seen the most interest thanks to its favourable climate (the oil palm is native to the region), fertile soil and receptive governments. China alone is reported to have purchased some 7million hectares for production in the DRC. The region also appears an attractive proposition for a number of other reasons such as cheap labour costs, the large domestic market for palm oil and its closer proximity to markets in Europe and the Middle East.

Rainforests are being replaced with large palm oil plantations which after 25 years leave the soil completely exhausted and unusable.

Rainforests are being replaced with large palm oil plantations which after 25 years leave the soil completely exhausted and unusable.

The arrival of outside actors into the region is also raising social as well as environmental concerns. The joint research of a number of NGOs claims that the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia has led to “hundreds of disputes and conflicts over land, involving demonstrations, land occupations, displaced persons, arrests, beatings, torture and deaths.” Such effects some say could be equally held in the Congo Basin. The various indigenous ‘pygmy’ peoples who have in inhabited the forests for millennia but are not officially recognised and often discriminated against by many of the region’s governments appear particularly susceptible to ownership challenges because of their lack of documentation including formal land titles. On top of the environmental damage and potential rights infringements, these companies also seem to be attempting to offset their development costs by not only grabbing land but materials and resources, such as timber, for export, driving up local prices.


A number of campaign groups are involved in projects in Central and East Africa to help combat the growing problem of land-grabbing. Slow Food, Stop Africa Land Grab and Oxfam all have programmes to educate local populations potentially susceptible to exploitative land acquisitions with the aim of raising community awareness of and resilience to such behaviour. These events teach skills such as farming techniques and land management as well as highlighting the virtues of community ownership of common land and explaining the basics of legal protection of property.

These groups also lobby a number of parties in an effort to stop land-grabbing. First, they not only put pressure on the translation corporations that acquire vast swathes of land themselves but also the companies that they supply with the various crops grown on the land. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Associated British Foods and other global food and beverage companies have all been urged to ensure that the ingredients in their products are sourced from ethical sources and to take a zero-tolerance approach to land-grabs. Second, campaigns are used to influence governments and international organisations to put in place apparatus to regulate large-scale land acquisitions all over the globe. Increased transparency in the process by which land transfers ownership occurs is also highlighted as a positive measure that could be implemented with or without the introduction of formal regulation. Finally, these groups look to gain public support through various promotion campaigns to exert as much influence on the various other parties involved who can help curb abusive land-grabbing.

The information ‘gap’

Whilst instances of abusive land-grabbing practices have certainly occurred in Central and East Africa, the wider phenomenon of the African land grab has not materialised to the predicted degree. It appears that something of a gap has developed between what’s being reported and what’s actually happening on the ground with actual figures not quite living up to press accusations. The most comprehensive and impartial database on global land grabs, the Land Matrix Global Observatory, recently stated that both the number and size of global land grabs had been “significantly exaggerated”. Sensationalist media outlets and advocacy groups are either negligently or deliberately overplaying the scale of land acquisitions in the region to meet their own agendas. Dramatic headlines that incite imagery such a rush to carve up the African continent by rich foreign investors have also failed to materialise for the most part.

New intensive agricultural practices are certainly changing the landscape of many African countries but the size of foreign ‘land-grabs’ may have been exaggerated | Source: New Security Beat

New intensive agricultural practices are certainly changing the landscape of many African countries but the size of foreign ‘land-grabs’ may have been exaggerated | Source: New Security Beat

This ‘gap’ looks to have been caused primarily because of a lack of impartial and accurate research on the subject. Much of the available information on land grabs rests on only the widely reported detail of deals, many of which fail to actually happen or occur on a much smaller scale. For example, a South African deal to initially purchase 10 million hectares in Congo-Brazzaville only actually resulted in a purchase of some 80,000 hectares, yet it was the former figure that has helped shape the rhetoric of a number of reports. The opaque nature of most deals and the complex ownership structures employed by numerous investment companies does little to help address this misinformation. Many predictions for land grabbing in Africa (most notably regarding the purchase of land for palm oil production) have been also extrapolated from the experience in South East Asia which are bound to differ to some degree at least. Region specific issues such as political instability; hidden taxes and corruption; poor infrastructure and the expensive costs of training local workforces are often left out in the rush to paint the continent as an attractive prospect for land-grabbers. The credible research that is now appearing also indicates that abusive ‘land-grabbing’ practices whilst financially prudent actually heighten the risks to investors. It found that communities (often working in conjunction with NGOs) in many instances now have the power to make life sufficiently difficult for such companies that unexpected costs and problems can cripple or even bring about the abandonment of projects altogether. Whilst the advent of accurate information may address many of the problems of over exaggeration, there still appears significant conflict over the land grab movement. In Liberia some ‘land grab crusaders’ from certain NGOs, have been accused of hijacking and knowingly misrepresenting the views of local residents with the intention of furthering their own causes. Such biased rhetoric should not appropriate the central position in public consciousness on foreign investment in Africa.


Follow Resolution:Possible’s board Environment on Pinterest.