Book charts path from harmful land grabs to people-centred investment in Africa

News, 15 July 2013
The time is ripe for a new approach to the large-scale land deals that ultimately connect millions of consumers and savers in rich nations with millions of poor rural farmers in Africa, says a new book by one of the world’s leading experts in such deals.

Zed Books will launch "The Great African Land Grab?" by Dr Lorenzo Cotula, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development, on 15 July in London.

The book shows how governments, investors, civil society organisations and farmers can act to ensure that investment in agriculture responds to the aspirations of poor communities, whilst providing returns on investments.

"The growing body of evidence shows that the majority of large-scale land deals have had net negative impacts on local populations," says Cotula. "They have rendered people landless without compensations, have broken links between land and livelihoods, culture and social identity, and, in some cases, have sparked conflict."

It doesn’t need to be this way. When properly structured, investments can create new opportunities for local producers – for example, where a company invests in a processing plant and sources from local farmers.

"Small-scale farmers remain the main source of investment in African agriculture, and it is through promoting investment in these farmers, not in their land, that African governments are most likely to increase food security," says Cotula.

But historical legacies, powerful forces in markets and policy, and biased legal frameworks make local landholders vulnerable to dispossession.

"The law offers strong protection to investors who acquire land, but the rights of people affected by the deals are weak under national and international law," says Cotula. "When competing claims come into contest, more vulnerable groups get squeezed out. The people the deals affect have little or no say, and gain few benefits."

But Cotula also warns that the debate on "land grabbing" has become polarised, and that this does not help efforts to find practical ways forward. Strong views in favour of either large or small-scale agriculture ignore the evidence that demands a more fine-grained analysis of each model, and of the many models that involve collaboration between small and large-scale operators.

Cotula outlines what governments, investors, international agencies and civil society could do to promote more inclusive models of investment. He says that without the necessary changes to policy, law, transparency and power relations, a better deal for Africa from incoming investment will remain elusive.

"Decisions taken now will have impacts for decades to come," says Cotula. "The time has come for placing people at the centre of investment processes."

Read a new blog post by Lorenzo Cotula, published on 16 July 2013. African land deals: Is a policy shift underway?

The Great African Land Grab? by Lorenzo Cotula is published by Zed Books, priced £12.99/$22.95, ISBN 9781780324203. For more information or to request a review copy please contact Mihela Kralj on +44 (0)20 7837 8466 or


For interviews contact Dr Lorenzo Cotula (


Notes to editors


Lorenzo Cotula is a senior researcher and team leader at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), where he works on land and on natural resource investment in lower-income countries. Lorenzo undertakes research, capacity building, policy advocacy and advisory work at field, national and international levels. Before joining IIED in 2002, he worked on assignments with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and with two Italian NGOs. Lorenzo holds a law degree from the University ‘La Sapienza’ of Rome, an MSc in development studies from the London School of Economics, a PhD in law from the University of Edinburgh, and a Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business from the University of Cambridge.


This book moves beyond the usual clichés about land grabs. It highlights the winners and losers of the emergence of a new global market for farmland, showing that while some among the rural poor may gain new opportunities from this development, many more will lose. Invest in small-scale farmers, not in the land on which they depend, and read this book, if you care at all about the future of agricultural development in poor countries.”

Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food


This is an outstanding book which will, without any doubt, make a major contribution to the growing literature on the important subject of land grabbing. In an arena that is often polarized, it is supremely fair and balanced. It unpicks and unpacks things based on the author's extensive research and practical experience in Ghana, Mali, Tanzania and Mozambique.”

Robin Palmer, global land rights policy specialist, Mokoro


Probably nobody knows better than Cotula what the word 'grab' means in terms of land grabs. He has read the contracts, seen the disgraceful and fraudulent terms they often include, and knows from personal investigation what that means for the rural Africans whose land has been taken. This is an eye-opener for all enthusiasts of foreign investment in Africa.”

Fred Pearce, author of The Landgrabbers.


A timely and very useful summary of the recent development of land grabbing in Africa. Cotula combines this with insightful reflections on the internal and external factors within the global economy and mainstream policy circles that have contributed to the rise of land grabbing.”

Kojo Sebastian Amanor, associate professor at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, and author of Land and Sustainable Development in Africa


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