The pace and scale of global land acquisitions has dramatically increased recently due to changes in commodity markets, agricultural investment strategies, land prices, and a range of other policy and market forces. This surge in so-called ‘land grabbing’ (see Box) is widespread, but particularly pronounced in a) countries with relatively weak governance and protection of customary land rights; b) in the global ‘commons’ i.e. lands which are customarily used collectively at the local scale, including forests, rangelands, and wetlands. These landscapes support the livelihoods of up to two billion people around the world, most of who are among the rural poor. These lands are also central to global conservation objectives, housing a large proportion of world’s biodiversity. ‘Land grabbing’ therefore presents a threat not just to local livelihoods and human rights (as has been the primary focus thus far within the debate), but also to conservation objectives.

Land grabbing: A definition

‘Land grabbing’, as defined by the international Land Coalition’s Tirana Declaration is: acquisitions or concessions that are one or more of the following (1):

  • In violation of human rights, particularly the equal rights of women;
  • Not based on free, prior and informed consent of the affected land-users;
  • Not based on a thorough assessment, or are in disregard of social, economic and environmental impacts, including the way they are gendered;
  • Not based on transparent contracts that specify clear and binding commitments about activities, employment and benefits sharing, and;
  • Not based on effective democratic planning, independent oversight and meaningful participation.

At the same time, some commentators point out that conservation can be part of the land grabbing problem. A growing body of research has drawn attention to the phenomenon of ‘green grabbing’ (2), which constitutes ‘land grabs’ which are linked to either conservation pursuits, or markets related to ‘green’ enterprises such as forestry (for timber, carbon offsetting, or other products), biofuels, and ecotourism. The relationship between ‘land grabbing’ and conservation is therefore a multi-faceted and evolving one which merits further exploration.

In light of these trends and challenges, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), through its Poverty and Conservation Learning Group, in collaboration with the International Land Coalition, Zoological Society of London and Maliasili Initiatives, convened a symposium at the London Zoo on March 26th and 27th to explore the multi-faceted interactions between conservation efforts, land acquisition, and community land rights, and to examine opportunities for greater convergence and synergy between these different movements and interests.

The overall objectives of the symposium were to:

  1. Examine the varied interactions between conservation and land rights/’land grabbing’ in a variety of global contexts; and
  2. Encourage more strategic engagement by the conservation movement in land rights and tenure concerns, highlighting different models that can be used to secure or strengthen local land rights, and the potential role of conservation in combating ‘land grabbing’ thus benefitting both conservation and development.

The symposium brought together about 80 people from different parts of the world including experts on land tenure, rural development, legal empowerment, as well as representatives of a range of conservation organizations and networks. Through discussions over two days involving a wide range of presentations and case studies from different parts of the world, the symposium recognised that by supporting rural communities to secure and scale-up land rights as well as strengthening local level management, the risk of land grabs can be reduced and opportunities for realising conservation developed. At the same time conservation organisations are recognising that investing in community land rights alone is not sufficient to ensure conservation outcomes. It is a first step - and additional work is then needed to clarify and address management issues, incentives and governance arrangements. This could prove challenging for conservation organisations.

Land conflicts are often deeply rooted in governance failures – an area that is both unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for many conservation organisations.  Furthermore, ‘land grabbing’ is essentially about rights - the core business of many development organisations but traditionally of less concern for conservation organisations. Few conservation organisations have the capacity to undertake this kind of work alone and will need to enter into new partnerships with human rights based NGOs. ‘Land grabbing’ and land rights could potentially be a key issue that encourages better and stronger collaboration between environment and development organisations.

A summary report of the symposium is now available on the Poverty and Conservation Learning Group website, together with copies of all the presentations. Please contact Dilys Roe at the International Institute for Environment and Development (dilys.roe@iied.org) for more information.

Dilys Roe (IIED), Fred Nelson (Maliasili Initiatives), Tom Blomley (Acacia Natural Resource Consulting) and Fiona Flintan (International Land Coalition)

References

(1) http://www.landcoalition.org/about-us/aom2011/tirana-declaration

(2) James Fairhead, Melissa Leach & Ian Scoones (2012): Green Grabbing: A new appropriation of nature? Journal of Peasant Studies, 39:2, 237-261