Foreign Land Deals: Good or Bad News for Local Communities?

Since the 2007-2008 global food crisis, foreign land acquisitions, or “land grabs,” have exploded in number. In 2014, Land Matrix estimated that a total of 950 land deals were in effect in various stages throughout the world, often in countries with poor land governance and high levels of food insecurity. While foreign land acquisition does have the potential to increase essential investment into agriculture in poor developing countries, it also poses a risk to local populations, who may face a loss in access to and control over land. However, evidence of the effects of land deals on local communities and societies has not received much attention in the literature to date.  In a new book, “Handbook of Research on In-Country Determinants and Implications of Foreign Land Acquisitions,” Dr. Evans Osabuohien examines the potential economic, sociological, and environmental impacts of land deals on households and communities in developing countries across the world, including many in Africa south of the Sahara.

The book discusses the features of land targeted for acquisition – such as the strength of local institutions – and how those features can play a role in shaping how these acquisitions play out for local populations. Drawing from country-level evidence of the determinants of large-scale land acquisitions, the contributing authors examine land deals from a variety of standpoints, including inter- and intra-country variations, implications for gender relations in the local community, agricultural transformation and land reform, and household-level impacts.

For example, Chapter 8 (“Foreign Land Acquisition: Food Security and Food Chains – The Nigerian Experience”) examines the impact of large-scale foreign land acquisitions on food security and food chains in Nigeria. Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, the study focuses on two states: Benue State and Kwara State. The latter state was chosen because the local government in Kwara has long allocated a specific number of hectares of land to foreign farmers; on the other hand, Benue State was chosen because, until very recently, government policies focused on increasing local food production rather than on creating opportunities for foreign investors.

The study finds that large-scale foreign land acquisitions does in fact have a positive relationship to food security and food chains in Nigeria. In addition to increasing food production in the country, foreign land acquisitions for commercial farming can help ensure uninterrupted food chains within the country, ensure food security, and provide job opportunities for local populations. At the same time, the authors caution that the government of Nigeria should encourage both foreign and local investors in order to strengthen the country’s own agricultural sector. This can be done through loosening the currently stringent land acquisition processes and by providing technical assistance and loans to local farmers. Enabling local populations to engage in more large-scale farming will provide sustainable food chains for the Nigerian people, while foreign investors can help Nigeria increase its food exports.

Another chapter (Chapter 13, “Agents and Implications of Foreign Land Deals in East African Community: The Case of Uganda) reaches some different conclusions. Using evidence from Uganda, the chapter looks at community-level factors that contribute to foreign investors’ decision to purchase land in a specific area, as well as whether those foreign investments help or hurt the communities in which they are made. The authors find that the availability of land and the corruptibility of local leaders and officials play a large role in attracting foreign investors to Uganda; the presence of a strong, accountable financial system, on the other hand, can deter investment. The chapter also finds that foreign land deals can lead to a deterioration in education, roads, and other social structures. To combat these negative effects, the Ugandan government must be willing to enforce existing formal institutions and policies, such as the recently signed Ugandan National Land Policy. Stronger enforcement of the laws governing land acquisition and use will help ensure that foreign land deals don’t end up being a bad deal for local populations.

Osabuohien, a member of the AGRODEP Modeling Consortium, formally launched the book at the upcoming Tropentag Conference in Berlin, Germany during a panel discussion on “Large Scale Land Acquisition in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The book includes chapters contributed by several other AGRODEP members as well, including Elijah Abiodun ObayeluKassa AlemuCiliaka M. Gitau, and Uchenna Efobi.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: IFPRI/Guush Berhane Tesfay