Biggest study of large land deals to date warns of threats to poor

News, 14 December 2011

Four key failures of governance harm the rural poor in developing nations

The most comprehensive study of large land acquisitions in developing countries to date — published online on 14 December by the International Land Coalition (ILC) — has found more evidence of harm than benefits.

More than 40 organisations collaborated on the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project, which synthesised 28 case studies, thematic studies and regional overviews.

The report also includes the latest data from the ongoing Land Matrix project to monitor large-scale land transactions, and covers a full decade of land deals from 2000-2010. Those deals amount to more than 200 million hectares of land – or eight times the size of the United Kingdom.

The research revealed some trends that have not been widely reported in the recent surge of media coverage of land deals. First, national elites play a much larger role in land acquisitions than has been noted to date by media reports that have focused on foreign investors.

Second, food is not the main focus of the land deals. Out of the 71 million hectares in deals that the authors could cross-reference, 22% was for mining, tourism, industry and forestry and three-quarters of the remaining 78% for agricultural production was for biofuels.

The researchers found that while large land deals can create opportunities, they are more likely to cause problems for the poorest members of society, who often lose access to land and resources that are essential to their livelihoods. “Under current conditions, large-scale land deals threaten the rights and livelihoods of poor rural communities and especially women,” says report lead author Ward Anseeuw of the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, CIRAD.

In addition, promised jobs have not yet materialised, and in their rush to attract investments, governments miss out on long-term tax and lease revenues that better negotiated deals could provide.

“The competition for land is becoming increasingly global and increasingly unequal. Weak governance, corruption and a lack of transparency in decision-making, which are key features of the typical environment in which large-scale land acquisitions take place, mean that the poor gain few benefits from these deals but pay high costs,” says Dr Madiodio Niasse, Secretariat Director of the International Land Coalition, whose members include UN agencies, International Financial Institutions, research institutes, and civil society and farmers’ organisations.

Weak land rights are another problem. “As governments own the land it is easy for them to lease large areas to investors, but the benefits for local communities or national treasuries are often minimal,” says co-author, Dr Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for Environment and Development. “This highlights the need for poor communities to have stronger rights over the land they have lived on for generations.”

“There is little in our findings to suggest that the term ‘land grabbing’ is not widely deserved,” says Dr Michael Taylor, ILC Secretariat’s Programme Manager, Global Policy and Africa, who coordinated the study process and co-authored the synthesis report.

In addition, economic governance is failing the rural poor. The international trade regimes provide robust legal protection to international investors, while fewer and less effective international arrangements have been established to protect the rights of the rural poor or to ensure that greater trade and investment translate into inclusive sustainable development and poverty reduction.

Part of the problem is also that many policymakers think small-scale farming has no future and that large scale, intensive agriculture is the best way to achieve food security and support national development.

The dispossession and marginalisation of the rural poor is nothing new. Rather, the current land rush represents an acceleration of ongoing processes, and one that appears set to continue. This report thus concludes that we are at a crossroads as regards the future of rural societies, land-based production and ecosystems in many areas of the South.

The report recommends that governments and investors:

  • recognise and respect the customary land and resource rights of rural people.
  • put smallholder production at the centre of strategies for agricultural development.
  • make international human rights law work for the poor.
  • make decision-making over land transparent, inclusive and accountable.
  • ensure environmental sustainability in decisions over land and water-based acquisitions and investments.

The report strongly urges models of investment that do not involve large-scale land acquisitions, but rather work together with local land users, respecting their land rights and the ability of small-scale farmers themselves to play a key role in investing to meet the food and resource demands of the future.

For a PDF of the report "Land Rights and the Rush for Land: Findings of the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project" – see


International Land Coalition
Dr Michael Taylor  Programme Manager, Global Policy and Africa International Land Coalition Secretariat at IFAD, Tel: +39 065459 2267

Dr Ward Anseeuw - +270 12 420 5022

Dr Lorenzo Cotula +44 (0) 131 226 7040

Notes to editors

The International Land Coalition (ILC) is a global alliance of civil society and intergovernmental organisations working together to promote secure and equitable access to land for poor women and men through advocacy, dialogue, knowledge sharing and capacity building. It is composed of 116 member organisations in more than 50 countries, including United Nations agencies and other international organisations, farmers’ organisations, research institutes, NGOs and community-based organisations. As a convenor of civil society, governmental and intergovernmental stakeholders on land policy and practice, ILC builds multi-stakeholder alliances to uphold the resource rights of poor women and men, and enables its members and partners to work together towards the implementation of a people-centred land agenda (see

CIRAD (Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) is a French research centre working with developing countries to tackle international agricultural and development issues. With those countries, it works to generate new knowledge, support agricultural development, and contribute to the debate on the main global issues concerning agriculture, food and rural territories.
CIRAD has a global network of partners and regional offices, from which it conducts joint operations with more than 90 countries. It has a staff of 1800, including 800 researchers. It has an annual budget of 214 million euros, with two thirds provided by the French government (see

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see:

Ward Anseeuw ( is a research fellow at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), based at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He has conducted research for the past ten years in Southern Africa and the African continent, particularly on the issues of agricultural restructuring, land conflicts, and agrarian and land reforms. He has published extensively on these issues in scientific journals and with renowned publishers.

Liz Alden Wily ( is a political economist with more than 35 years’ experience in 15 countries in Africa and Asia. She is an acknowledged expert on land tenure and administration in agrarian economies, focusing on indigenous tenure regimes. She has advised governments and international agencies on innovative tenure policies and operational programme designs. She works frequently in the field, developing new approaches with rural populations to mass tenure security, particularly affecting collective properties.

Lorenzo Cotula ( is a senior researcher in law and sustainable development at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), based in the UK. At IIED, Lorenzo leads work on land rights and on natural resource investment. He undertakes research, capacity building, advocacy, and advisory work at field, national, and international levels.

Michael Taylor ( is a programme manager for Africa and Global Policy at the Secretariat of the International Land Coalition (ILC), based in Rome at IFAD. He is a social anthropologist and environmental scientist who has worked on community-based rangeland management in Botswana, Mali, and Kenya, as well as other aspects of land tenure and community-based natural resource management in Africa and globally.

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