Guidelines to prevent ‘land grabbing’ crucial for food security, UN expert warns

3 October 2011

The practice of “land grabbing,” exemplified by biofuel production, large-scale infrastructure projects, carbon-credit mechanisms and speculation, is threatening food security for hundreds of millions of people by imperilling small-scale producers, a United Nations independent expert warned today.

“The threat of land grabbing has reminded us how vital access to land is for 500 million food-insecure households around the world,” UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter said ahead of this month’s meeting in Rome of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), urging all parties to agree on guidelines for the tenure of land, fisheries and forests.

“Land rights are the first building block on the road to achieving food security, and without international consensus on how land should be governed, the interests of vulnerable land users will continue to be swept aside,” he added, stressing that climate change and population growth will further complicate the problem by exacerbating tensions within and between countries.

The CFS, which will meet from 17 to 21 October, could adopt a set of far-reaching guidelines on the security of tenure of smallholder farmers, nomadic herders, and fisherfolk, all of them gravely threatened by current commercial pressures on land, if Governments overcome differences in the last round of pre-summit negotiations, he said.

While the guidelines would be voluntary, the reporting on their implementation should be binding, Mr. De Schutter said, noting that they could provide much needed guidance to States about how conflicts over land use should be addressed.

“If countries do not face international monitoring and are not encouraged to report to their national civil societies about the progress achieved, much of the added value of the voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests will be lost,” he stressed.

“States have nothing to fear. There is much to gain in adopting guidelines that will improve the ability of governments to defuse land-related conflicts, in times of growing tensions over access to natural resources. The guidelines will also strengthen the bargaining position of States when negotiating with private investors.

“This could help avoid the current ‘race to the bottom’ in which countries compete in order to attract investors, dismantling any existing protection land users enjoy,” he added. “In contrast, the costs of failure would be high. Without international consensus, other instruments will seek to fill the gap, such as those that are already being developed unilaterally by investment funds: a scenario that is far from being in the interests of vulnerable land users.”

Mr. De Schutter stressed that harmful investments to the detriment of local populations can only be warded off by securing the underlying rights of farmers, herders and fisherfolk, and he called on States to be wary of the dangers of speculation over land and concentration of ownership when land rights are transferred to investors offering to ‘develop’ farmland.

“We must escape the mental cage that sees large-scale investments as the only way to ‘develop’ agriculture and to ensure stability of supply for buyers,” he said.

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Land use protection essential in fight against hunger, UN expert warns

Protecting the rights of land users from speculation, stepped up production of agrofuels and population growth is vital to combat global hunger and malnutrition, an independent United Nations expert said today.