The Right to Land

Access to land is central to food security and the livelihood of individuals.

When we talk about the fight against hunger and poverty reduction, we must consider not only the economic factors but, above all, the formal and informal rules that regulate access to land which is strictly linked to access to food. Food security comprises four main components: food availability, food accessibility, the stability of the food supply, and the use of food. Hunger and poverty depend in large measure on how people, communities and others have access to land.

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Access to land is defined and regulated by tenure systems. The rules connecting with owning land can be based on written policies and laws, as well as on unwritten customs and practices. The governance of tenure is a crucial element in determining rights, and associated duties, to use and control land, fisheries and forests. Many tenure problems arise because of weak governance which hinders access to justice when tenure rights are infringed upon, making communities at risk of the arbitrary loss of their tenure rights, including forced evictions. Weak tenure governance may also be responsible for making land vulnerable to commercial pressure and investments. Responsible governance makes access to land, fisheries and forests more equitable, which is the essential factor for the implementation of the right to food. Having secure and equitable access to land and natural resources can allow people to produce food for their consumption. Land, fisheries and forests are the source of food and shelter; the basis for social, cultural and religious practices; and a central factor in economic growth. Therefore, formal legal recognition of land rights is essential in order to take legal actions in case of infringement of rules.

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Land grabbing

The world food price spike of 2008 put agriculture back on the global agenda. As a consequence of the crisis, many countries, vulnerable to the risks arising from price volatility in agricultural markets, gradually increased large foreign investments in agricultural production. The investments included large scale arable land acquisition. The phenomenon initially involved a number of wealthy countries that relied on food imports, such as South Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
These countries took an aggressive move in acquiring large tracts of land across countries, which in turn, are not able to meet their internal food and nutrition needs, such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo. This means that host countries, besides being chronically affected by food security problems, are also deprived of land, losing, this way, access to other natural resource, above all water, essential to the livelihood of the population especially in rural areas. Commercial pressure on land has considerably increased over recent years and the rights of local communities have been heavily trampled in favour of the logic of profit. That is why the phenomenon is called ‘land grabbing’.

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Large scale land acquisition sparks new tensions over both land access rights, and the systems of local agricultural production; at the same time, it reflects and fosters growing economic and political inequality among individuals, governments and companies in competition for land. The global rising demand for food, biofuels, timber, minerals, energy, and tourism, in a context of increasing trade liberalization, has boosted demand for land and creating unprecedented pressure on resources. The International Land Coalition estimates that between 2000 and 2012 foreign investors bought or leased at least 230 million hectares of land in other countries. Africa is the most affected continent by the grabbing of agricultural land by foreign investors. Besides, not everybody knows that most land acquisitions are not made by states to ensure national food security, but for pure speculation. Corporations involved, and investment banks are looking for high returns, either from increasing land values or short term profits from the land exploitation. Their aim is not food security but profit.

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The future of agriculture

Land grabs for large-scale agriculture are often justified by arguing that modern industrial agriculture can be the only tool in the arsenal to combat hunger and to ensure food security for 9 billion people by 2050 (more than two billion people from today’s levels). The fundamental question which arises is: what kind of agriculture will feed the world population in the near future? The conviction (shared by many) that only large-scale mechanized farming could save the world from hunger was seriously called into question by the 2008 IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report, which was written in collaboration with 400 leading scientists. The report highlighted the key role that family farms can play in the global fight against hunger.

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Olivier de Schutter, appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in 2008, in his 2009 report submitted to the Human Rights Council stated that, “States can and must achieve a reorientation of their agricultural systems towards modes of production that are highly productive, highly sustainable and that contribute to the progressive realization of the human right to adequate food”, and he identified ‘agroecology’ as a mode of agricultural development which not only shows strong conceptual connections with the right to food, but has proven results for fast progress in the concretization of this human right for many vulnerable groups in various countries and environments”.
Large-scale land acquisitions are invested in industrial agriculture, which utilizes large machines, which are more powerful and can work faster and harder. The shift towards machines has increased the use of fossil fuels on industrial farms. Industrial agriculture also increases crop yield by using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. All practices which are not sustainable in the long term. Small farmers’ productivity, instead, is based on sustainable agriculture, and it is believed to have the potential to ensure food security for the global population, even without the need for additional areas of cultivation. Small farmers, who are not only excluded from development, but are also forced into a competitive situation that threatens their very existence, should instead be supported, since they could play a key role in the fight against hunger.(C.C.)


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