Seeing the land for the jatropha

Amongst all the kerfuffle about biofuels a couple of years back I frequently found myself sub-vocalising good ol’ Pete Townshend:

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

And now Anna Locke over at ODI has written an excellent, balanced piece dissecting the real problem: land management and large-scale agricultural investment, of any stripe. She writes:

Among the incentives is the fact that land simply does not cost very much in many ‘land-rich’ African countries such as Tanzania and Mozambique, due to exceedingly low land rentals and taxes, which do not adequately reflect the true value of the land to the users. This means that companies can hold onto large areas of land without having to think too closely about the cost of doing so. Land is allocated on a first-come, first-served basis in many countries, prompting a rush by investors to get to the head of the queue and get as much land as possible. This also means that companies often try to secure larger areas of land than they can manage initially in order to guarantee taking the project to scale or for future expansion, or to get hold of an asset that they can sell on in the future.

Despite the above, cheap land and labour are often the cornerstones of governments’ investment policies. This has been encouraged by some of the international donor agencies and is seen by governments as a way to compensate for often difficult business environments with high costs in other areas. But how can this be squared with the rights of communities and local citizens to adequate compensation for their land and decent work conditions?

I have it on good authority that considerable effort by government and some CSOs was subsequently put into developing a Biofuels Strategy for Tanzania, when the country reportedly has some excellent land laws that are just not enforced very consistently. Maybe this was clever strategy by the CSOs – taking on land law enforcement generally might be too big a challenge – but it appears to be another case of mistaking a power/politics issue for a technical problem, for which, by implication, a technical solution can be found. Given that the biofuels revolution appears already to have faded, can lessons be easily transferred to other agricultural sectors? If the issue was framed as a technical problem in the first place that might be difficult.

I have some other observations cum recommendations:

  • Land is definitely cheaper in much of Africa than it is in developed countries. Any economic manager / adviser would be mad not to try to leverage that for the good of the country.
  • But navigating local community politics is hard. Investors are right to be wary!
  • Developing country governments can help most by establishing clear, transparent processes for handling this, and then following them properly.
  • Unfortunately, under misguided pressure by investors, they often appear to short-circuit their own rules which are usually put in place in the first place to protect local people from ‘evil investors’.
  • So to developing country governments I say: Yes investors may need help navigating your byzantine bureaucracy, and you should ensure no officials unreasonably hold up business. (Actually it would be great if you could do that for everyone else, but I understand you cannot do everything at once.) But please do not attempt to spike due process.
  • To investors I say: Face up to reality. This won’t be easy and you need to be prepared for the long haul. The best way to win over local people is to be good employers who respect the local environment etc. Don’t make promises of new schools etc that you cannot keep (unless/until you make millions). You’re a business not a charity, so just focus on being a good business!

That all said, any rich countries looking to trim some budget fat and maybe to make a nice deal at Durban next week should give the strongest possible consideration to ditching their “incredible and immoral [biofuels] subsidy” schemes. (Quote from Mark Lynas)

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Perhaps land is also cheaper for some reason: apart from the fertility and rainfall, the connection to markets, the security of property title, and so much more possible reasons exist for land to be cheap that go beyond “it’s a bargain”. When something is to good to be true, it probably isn’t.

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  2. […] See the rest here:  Seeing the land for the jatropha « Bottom Up Thinking […]

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  3. “When something is to good to be true, it probably isn’t.” that is probably true.

    Reply

  4. […] Blaming REDD is a bit like blaming world food markets for agricultural expansion, and betrays the fundamentally anti-markets stance of these critics. Better, I think, to tackle the underlying governance failings that lead to such abuses than to confuse the issue with an attack on REDD, which otherwise can deliver a lot of good to the world. I had the same thought a few years ago when biofuel production briefly menaced this part of Africa: no need for a dedicated biofuels policy if you implement your own land laws properly. […]

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