By Ochieng’ Ogodo
Frenzied sell-off of forests and other prime lands to buyers hungry for the developing world’s natural resources risks sparking widespread civil unrest, a new study that analysed tenure rights in 35 African countries has revealed.
The study released in London on February 1 says this can only be stemmed by national leaders and investors if they recognised the customary rights of millions of poor people who have lived on and worked these lands for centuries
“Controversial land acquisitions were a key factor triggering the civil wars in Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and there is every reason to be concerned that conditions are ripe for new conflicts to occur in many other places,” said Jeffrey Hatcher, director of global programs for the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
Hatcher noted at the release of the report that despite the clear potential for bloodshed, “local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa.”
The review found that the majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land, including forests, rangelands or marshlands, are claimed by states, but held in common by communities, affecting “a minimum” of 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa. “Every corner of every state has a customary owner,” International land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily said.
RRI brought together experts to release new findings on land tenure and investor risk worldwide, and to explore the land conflicts that have fractured Liberia and South Sudan. Aggravating the unrest in both countries were unilateral government decisions to sell off resources held on community lands.
Indigenous and traditional communities excluded
The land rights experts noted that indigenous and traditional communities are not generally opposed to economic development but are outraged by their total exclusion from a process that threatens to deprive them of land and resources essential to their survival. Wily’s analysis revealed that two-thirds of all the lands and resources investors are acquiring in the latest global land rush are in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Liberia and South Sudan, the experts said local communities are beginning to react to the impact land deals are having on traditional access to forests, rangelands and marshes. In Liberia, where 30 percent of the country is reported to be under timber, mining and agricultural concessions, local villagers have blocked the plans of a Malaysian company to plant oil palms on lands leased from the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
There are reports that the government is quietly issuing new “private use permits” to logging companies, violating national laws and the rights of local communities, and possibly undermining a recent pact signed in May 2011 with the European Union (EU) to ensure that timber exported to the EU is derived from legal sources and benefits the people of Liberia.
“The world is at a turning point in the global land grab, with the addition of dozens of new players, including the BRICs, South Africa and the nations of the Middle East, who are combing the planet for the natural resources required to sustain their rapid development,” said RRI’s Andy White. “The epic clash of this demand for land and resources—whether in the forests of Liberia, or in the quilombolas (former slave communities) in the Brazilian Amazon—is highly combustible, and must be resolved.”
Of the 35 African nations covered in the analysis, only nine got high marks for being “broadly positive” for their treatment of local, customary rights. The others were graded either “mixed” or “negative.”
The nations ranked “most positive” were Uganda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Southern Sudan. But even in those countries the laws are not respected in practice, and local communities are rarely included in negotiating the terms of a purchase or lease, even in countries where laws recognize such lands as private property.
“With the speed and scale of this surge into Africa in the last five years, the chief concern should be that investors are cutting deals with governments for land that really belongs to individual rural communities,” said Wily, who was interviewed in advance of the RRI event in London.
White said that engaging investors will be key to protecting the land rights of local communities, and that, in turn, will be critical to achieving the goals of slowing climate change, ensuring food security, and reducing poverty embraced by negotiators and advocates at United Nations meetings such as December’s COP-17 in Durban.
“Investors have much to lose if they fail to consider the customary rights of local communities,” White said. “Civil unrest will be the outcome, and it will affect their bottom line. So respecting and strengthening tenure rights is a win-win for investors, and for the people who currently view the vast forests and pastures of the developing world as their own.”
Experts said it’s too early to predict whether the spate of land deals recently negotiated in sub-Saharan Africa will produce widespread and destabilizing conflicts. But relatively few large-scale enterprises are fully established, White noted, so the people who will be affected by the deals have yet to realize their forests, marshes and rangelands have been sold or leased.
“Communities often do not find out what is going on until the bulldozers arrive,” White said.
Increasingly, however, local communities and the NGOs that support them are learning more about their rights and how to enforce them.
Liberia and South Sudan
A broad coalition of Liberian organizations, including the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI, Liberia) and Green Advocates Liberia, today charged their government with issuing alternative “private use permits” on an estimated 700,000 hectares of forestland. They argued in a press release and accompanying report that the new permits allow the companies to sidestep national laws and that it goes against the spirit of the country’s pact with the EU, known as the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA).
A legally-binding trade agreement between Liberia and the EU, the VPA will go into effect in 2013. It defines what constitutes legal timber and sets up an assurance system able to verify compliance and ensure that timber for export can be traced back to the source.
In South Sudan is one of the countries cited for doing a good job of protecting customary rights under the law, the government signed deals for control of nine percent of the new nation's lands even before announcing its independence. With agreements signed since 2011, the percentage is expected to be even higher, said David Deng, research director, South Sudan Law Society, South Sudan.
"I would remind them that land was at the heart of the civil war in South Sudan," said Deng, who spoke at the RRI event today. "And now, with independence, communities expect that the sacrifices that they made during the war will be repaid by recognizing the legitimacy of their customary land tenure. Anything less would undermine the nation’s fragile peace,” Deng said.