Land Grabs Are Still Happening Today

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LONDON, United Kingdom – Oxfam identifies 10 major multinational food corporations, the Big Ten, who are not doing enough to ensure that land rights and human rights are respected in places where their ingredients grow. Families are displaced and livelihoods are uprooted in the quest for sugar, soy and palm oil. We are not talking about the how the United Fruit Company behaved in its Banana Republics at the turn of the 19th century, or about the US Indian removal Act of 1830 that was responsible for the Trail of Tears. Rather, we are talking about land grabbing happening right now in countries such as South Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia, and Mozambique.

What makes a land acquisition for the farming of crops be deemed a land grab? One, it violates human rights. Two, it flouts the principle of free, prior and informed consent. Three, it disregards a thorough assessment of social, economic and environmental impacts. And four, it avoids transparent contracts, democratic planning, and independent oversight. It is an example of the powerful using force to sweep away the poor and powerless.

Evidence of land grabs has been found specifically in Coca-Cola’s, Pepsico’s and Associated British Food’s supply chains, though Oxfam America is focusing on the Big Ten to improve land rights throughout our food system. These Big Ten include Nestle, Unilever, Coca Cola, Danone, Mars, Pepsico, Mondelez, General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Associated British Foods.

Commodities like sugar, soy and palm oil use up large amounts of land. Soy is the biggest land user of the three crops, needing about 107 million hectares of land, globally. Sugar production is currently using 31 million hectares, but demand for sugar is expected to rise by 25% going into 2020. Palm oil takes up 16 million hectares, but it is the ingredient that is used the most for food production. All three crops have been linked to nearly 800 large-scale land deals covering 33 million hectares (the size of Portugal) since 2000.

Of late, cases are revealing that some of these land acquisitions were done at the expense of the people living on the land. For example, in 2006 in the Sre Ambel district of Cambodia, 500 families from three villages lost their land to a sugar plantation. The families claim that they were not consulted about the land deal between the Government of Cambodia and the Thai company, Khon Kaen Sugar Co Ltd. Similar land conflicts have occurred in Brazil, the Philippines, Guatemala and Cambodia. Owing to the lack of transparency around land deals, more cases of land grabs go unnoticed.

As the population increases, and the demand for food grows, the need for more agricultural lands rises. It is essential that the land acquired for crops be done in a just way and are ethically sourced. There is no need to repeat the barbaric acts of historical land grabbing. Besides, the land conflicts it causes will negatively disrupt a company’s operations and supply, and tarnish a company’s reputation. In the long run, it is better to acquire land the right way from the get-go.The six countries with the most and recent land acquisitions – South Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia, and Mozambique – also are the countries that are perceived to have governments that are some of the most corrupt in the world. According to Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index, DRC ranks 160th out of 176 countries for being the most corrupt. Cambodia is 157th. Papua New Guinea is 150th. Mozambique is 123rd. Indonesia is 118th. South Sudan is too new of a country to have data yet, but it has just arisen from years of civil war with its northern neighbor and is considered a vulnerable state.

While a number of external and internal efforts are being pursued to improve corruption and governance within these countries – Oxfam strategizes that the most effective way to quell the incidences of land grabbing is to make the Big Ten food companies purposefully aware of their supply chain, prevent future land rights violations, and seriously adhere to industry standards in the supply chain. They must adopt a zero tolerance towards land grabbing.

Oxfam urges that the Big Ten companies need to be reminded that two-thirds of a company’s market value is attributed to its public reputation. Their consumers will not tolerate it when they learn of wrongdoing along a company’s supply chain. Take for example the unfortunate tragedy of the recent collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh due to unsafe building structures. Rana Plaza was home to a large number of textile mills that supplied apparel for 23 brands including Benetton, Walmart and Primark.  The death of over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers in the collapse was the catalyst in bringing more than 50 brands to sign up to a legally binding building safety agreement backed by international trade union IndustriALL and the Bangladeshi government.

The Big Ten are not solely responsible for bad building construction, greedy investors, or corrupt governments. Nonetheless, the Big Ten are highly influential players in the purchase of commodities and they should be mobilizing all actors along their supply chain towards a zero tolerance of land grabbing. They should be proactive about this issue rather than reactive like the retailers connected to the Rana Plaza disaster.– Maria Caluag
Sources: OxFam, Transparency International, The Guardian, Oxfam-Behind the Brands
Photo: Business Insider
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