Archive for the ‘Land Tenure’ Category

Tree grab or land grab?

A bunch of smallish NGOs has released a report criticising REDD as apparently incompatible with human rights. Some of these guys have previous form on just about any conservation programme that engages with markets. They have some nice principled arguments, but in the here and now they are so far away from a workable, affordable solution, that they’re just not helpful.

That said I have plenty of sympathy for the people subjected to rights violations mentioned here. I guess you could lay the blame on REDD for motivating at least some of these land grabs, but here’s my concern: are they not fundamentally illegal any way? (Yes, governments will deploy various quasi-legal arguments in their support, but in many cases these are weak, and courts with more than a modicum of independence may well find against them.) Stopping REDD will not stop other land grabs, e.g. for logging, agriculture or mining.

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.

In which Avaaz works out where the Serengeti is

This is a brief follow-up to my post yesterday about the lack of supporting detail to go with Avaaz’s campaign to stop the evictions of Maasai pastoralists from “the Serengeti”. The campaign and bluster response from the Tanzanian government were picked up in a piece in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

The response from the Tanzanian government is 100% correct, quite understandable and yet slightly ludicrous in declaring that there are no evictions planned from Serengeti NP. It is both correct and understandable because while Avaaz may well be accurate in stating that “the Maasai lands in question are commonly understood to be within the Serengeti ecosystem” (as I hypothesised yesterday), it is 100% understandable that anyone who is not a wildlife ecologist will assume that by Serengeti one means the world famous national park. It is also quite reasonable for a Tanzanian government official to alternatively interpret the term to refer the district of that name in northern Tanzania.

So whilst I do not particularly disagree with Avaaz’s Emma Ruby-Sachs when she accuses the Tanzanian government of “playing cynical word games”, I suspect she might find that many people in Tanzania (the most important constituency of all here) would disagree with her. If the Avaaz campaign petition had made clear that they were actually referring to the Loliondo Game Controlled Area that immediately abuts the Serengeti NP then this obfuscatory response would not have been an option. So, in my view, Avaaz have only themselves to blame if this campaign backfires.

As for me, I am wondering whether I should sign the latest Avaaz petition to land in my inbox about an allegedly scandalous plan to build a big polluting coal port right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Once again the web-based petition does not present any supporting facts despite the fact that, apparently, UNESCO are against the idea. The email is a bit better, with a few links, although none give a very clear background to this case (e.g. tell us what damage UNESCO think the port might do). Avaaz clearly espouse some very good causes, but until they can convince me that they have their facts right I am going to have to pass on any future petitions.

Hat Tip: Just Conservation

Misplacing your injustice

Last year I wrote about the controversy surrounding the proposal, thankfully cancelled, to push a new trunk road through the northern Serengeti. Now, according to Avaaz, there is a threat to sell off part of the Serengeti to “wealthy Middle Eastern kings and princes to hunt lions and leopards.” Sounds alarming, and yet the ham-fisted scientists of yesteryear are now quiet. What is going on?

According to contacts of mine, the area in question is not, in fact, part of the world famous Serengeti National Park, but in an adjoining area, the Loliondo Game Controlled Area. It is probably fair to say that this area is part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem, but Avaaz are surely being misleading in titling their campaign “Stop the Serengeti Sell-Off”.

Map of Serengeti NP and Loliondo GCA

Equally disturbing is the lack of any supporting information provided on the Avaaz petition page to link the concerned citizen with further background information. As it happens there is a fair bit out there on the simmering land disputes in Loliondo: try here, here and here for starters. It certainly seems a worthy cause without any need for dressing up with incorrect facts.

The Newsroom, the new TV drama series by Aaron Sorkin, starts with the premise that there is nothing more important to a well-functioning democracy than a well-informed citizenry. It may well be, that like their political party counterparts, campaigners working to stop human rights abuses and end poverty etc. have learned the hard way that simplicity sells, but the web is the perfect medium with which to present a simple cover message but allow those of a more inquiring mind to dig a little deeper.

NGOs do not always get everything right. Just having good intentions is not enough. As a discerning member of the public I am not willing to sign every Avaaz campaign just because it tugs the heart strings. I want to check my facts first. Moreover, having now discovered one inaccuracy I am going to be rather more suspicious next time around. With enough incidents like this Avaaz could implode just like Invisible Children did after the vigorous pushback to the ignominious #Kony2012 campaign, which equally suffered from over-simplification.

This is so easy to fix. Don’t treat your would be petition signers as idiots. Avaaz can and should do better.

Leapfrogging is hard with only one leg

“Environmental systems are easier to set up when development is still in its early stages” claims the FT. This arguably is a misquote from the article (blame the sub-editor?) by Sarah Murray who cites the old chestnut of the leap over fixed line telephony straight to mobile phones in Africa. With the possible exception of mobile money, building, of course, on the earlier leap, and still mostly confined to Kenya, I struggle to think of any other big technological leaps made that have significantly fast-forwarded development on the national or international scale.

That is not to say that small leaps are not being made by various businesses across the developing world, but Ms Murray was talking about the big systemic leaps, especially to greener technologies in such things as agriculture and power generation. Here I feel the picture is less rosy.

Mobile phones first brought benefits to the elite, benefits they had not previously been able to access in other ways, so I imagine that less regulatory hurdles were put in their way. In contrast there are lots of powerful vested interests in agriculture and power generation, and elites have little problem putting food on the table or fuel in their private generators. Moreover significant reform to the farm sector inevitably involves wrestling with that most sensitive of subjects, and one in which elites are particularly attached to their privileges (and thus potential for abuse): land.

Most eco-friendly farming techniques either require a certain amount of upfront investment (organic certificates don’t come cheap) and/or have a long term payoff, e.g. better soil nutrient retention. Without security of tenure such innovations will always be restricted to small pilot projects.

Alas most farmers in Africa (Ms Murray was specifically talking about Africa) are smallholders with negligible if any land tenure security. Large commercial farms will at least have the relevant pieces of paper, but may have had to trample upon a few rights just to get them in the first place, and thus can be a lot more vulnerable to changing political winds then they might like, i.e. their tenure security ain’t so great either.

So although I would like to be more optimistic, I would caution anyone expecting a great leap forward in agricultural technologies in Africa or other developing countries. It’s hard to go leapfrogging when one leg is nailed to the floor.

Hat tip: my Dad.

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)

Blame it on the speculators, why don’t you?

Catching up on what’s been on the Guardian’s Development Matters blog, I’m surprised that no-one else has yet chimed in on the dodgy economics on show by Christian Aid’s Alex Cobham when he points the finger at pension funds for helping drive up world food prices. Now I’m not an expert economist, so I will gratefully defer to anyone who can point out that the error in the following.

One of the basic principles of economics is that prices rise when demand exceeds supply, but then these price rises should stimulate further production thus taking the edge off price rises. So before we get to the pension funds, we have to ask ourselves, are there external factors driving up the price of food globally, to which we answer yes: rising populations, increasing prosperity (richer people eat more and eat more protein which takes a significantly larger land area to produce per unit than arable crops) and climate change are all at work, meanwhile yield improvements are tailing off a bit. This is why rich Arabs and others are buying up large tracts of Africa, and equally why the pension funds are investing in agricultural commodities.

The more important question, in my mind, is why has production not responded to these clear price signals? Farmers are better able to respond to incentive price increases than suppliers of other commodities: new mines and oil rigs take a while to come on stream, whereas farmers can easily up production the following year. Global food prices have been high for a few years now – albeit with plenty of volatility – long enough for farmers to respond. That they haven’t done so sufficiently suggests to me that there is something wrong with the operation of global food markets, which there is; they must be the most highly subsidised in the world and are also subject to various price controls and periodic export bans by twitchy governments.

That is not to say farming is not a risky business: it is, and global price volatility is ample evidence of this. However, commodity derivative markets can actually help a poor farmer who is weighing up whether or not to invest in additional seed or fertiliser this year: they allow the farmer to enter into a contract now to deliver at a fixed price later. (Since bad weather can easily wreck the best such laid plans, the farmer would be well-advised to buy some insurance too.) This is one thing often forgotten about financial derivatives: most (I hesitate to say all) were first devised to ameliorate risk for producers and consumers, not for the benefit of speculators.

However, in the developing country where I live and work, the state controlled marketing boards and cooperatives are extremely poorly run. I suspect very few people working in them even have any idea as to what a commodity derivative is, let alone how they could use them to support their farmers. It is a fine idea to provide floor price support to farmers, but these cooperatives do so so inefficiently that one really has to question their raison d’être. Simply closing them down over night without any replacement, as happened in some countries under IMF-led structural adjustment strictures during the 1990s, would probably leave farmers bereft of any support, but allowing them to be replaced gradually by private sector players, who at least have clear commercial incentives to boost production, would seem a sensible option to me, with governments reduced to a buyer of last resort to provide a guaranteed floor price protection that should insulate farmers from the worst kind of exploitation by the ‘evil’ middle men of agricultural commerce.

Although there may be fortunes to be made and lost along the way, speculative bubbles that do not have any foundation in market fundamentals will play themselves out in time. Moreover pension funds are not your average speculator; they tend to invest for the long run. If they thought there was a problem of over-supply in world farming they simply would not invest. Global agricultural markets must be massive; that speculators – whoever they may be – can have an impact speaks to me more of a tightness in supply coupled with artificial narrowing of the market by price controls and export restrictions.

I doubt that full market liberalisation is the optimal solution to agricultural commodity price volatility, and in any case it is clear that politically this is currently out of the question. But a lot could be done to make markets operate more efficiently, and to allow developing country farmers to benefit more from rising demand. Blaming pension funds and other speculators, however, is akin to shooting the messenger. Christian Aid should be capable of better than this kind of base populism.

There’s hot potatoes in that land there

I have previously blogged about the Ethiopian government’s dodgy land sales. I now note that at least one such concession is apparently being down-scaled.

This news dovetails with Rasmus Hundsbaek’s recent commentary on the significant risks for foreign investors in pursuing such large acquisitions. Similarly, I hear that of the conservancies set up in Zimbabwe 15-20 years ago, it was the 100% privately owned ones that got trashed when Mugabe let loose his goons on them, whilst the community owned ones, under the renowned CAMPFIRE programme, survived, although I guess that the number of customers may have tailed off somewhat. Political risk must remain a serious concern for investors in many African countries, and land is the most political issue of them all.

ps. For another of those make-you-think pieces challenging basic assumptions behind how the West views Africa, see Rasmus’s latest post which ponders how anthropologists might view a hippie commune in Copenhagen.

Free parking for rich farmers?

Whenever I hear of a new protected area being created I always worry about which local communities maybe losing their land. Fines-and-fences conservationists with strong connections to donors may regrettably outweigh remote indigenous communities in the considerations of central government elites.

Whether or not that was the case when Gambella National Park was created in Ethiopia in 1974 I have no idea – it is the site of the second largest mammal migration in Africa! – but it now appears that global agricultural investors trump the conservationists. If a national park’s boundaries are to be compromised for sensible concessions with local residents then I will happily applaud (the rigidity of interpretation around protected area regulations is one reason I am ambiguous about their benefits), but selling a park out to international agribusiness doesn’t even come close.

Unlike the countries further south, my guess is that wildlife-based tourism is pretty low in Ethiopia, so the government doesn’t think its losing much. All of which just goes to show that getting biodiversity to pay for itself can yield better protection than some piece of paper.

How much global condemnation will the Ethiopian government face for this decision only time will tell, but it looks like facts are being created on the ground quicker than a conservation campaign can mobilise. I feel sad for the White-eared Kob, and the likely loss of one of the few remaining great plains spectacles left in the world.

Big farm, big deal

Last but not least on my round-up of what was blogged while I was putting my feet up, my eye was caught by this article from Madeleine Bunting on a massive land deal on Mali (bought by the Libyans). It is so far from least that I have created an entirely new category Land Tenure to house it. I should be blogging a lot more about land as it is critical to just about every conservation and development project* I have ever come across.

These kind of land deals are serious business in Africa these days, and so they should be. Africa has got a lot of land which is underutilised. Various problems raise their head. From a conservation perspective unutilised land might have a lot of utility as a biodiversity reserve. I’m generally not a big fan of trying to cover half the earth in protected areas, but that is not to say there are not good arguments for adding to what we’ve got, especially in lesser known habitats. Moreover, as this blog is certainly prepared to argue, creating a protected area is not necessary to conserving habitat. However, plonking a new big agricultural project smack down in the middle  of a biodiversity hotspot, as I have seen happen, really does not count as a good idea.

Another problem with land deals is you always have to ask: whose land is it? Unfortunately the politicians’ answer does not always accord with local views on the matter. As with any such large investments, even ignoring the lure of corruption, there are often incentives for officials and politicians to simplify a more complex situation on the ground in order to appeal to investors. If all of this translated into full compensation for those affected and better services for all this would be less of a problem, but Africa’s governance problems have severely eroded governments’ capacity to act as an honest broker across all sorts of issues. The strength of feeling over this incredibly sensitive issue should never be underestimated; a major land deal between S Korea and Madagascar was cited as a factor in the less-than-constitutional change of government there in 2009.

But, the thing that often gets missed in all of these discussions is the question: why is this land underutilised? It certainly isn’t all remote wilderness. Agriculture in much of sub-Saharan Africa is a byword for inefficient production. Governments are now seeking to resolve this by bringing in foreign expertise and investment, but the fact is that, around here at least, they could do much to free up the agricultural sector without selling out their countrymen. Government run marketing boards and cooperatives are horrendously inept, and it is hard to see what benefits they bring smallholder farmers; however evil the much abused middle-man is, he at least has the incentive to get the best kind of inputs (seed, fertiliser, pesticides) to the farmers at the right time of year. Unfortunately politicians like to take a rather paternalistic attitude to rural farmers when in fact often the best thing they could do is just get right out of the way other than a few very basic market interventions such as subsidised inputs (ref recent stories on Malawi) and setting floor prices on staple produce (to limit the ‘evilness’ of the middle men).

Finally, governments could clear up land tenure properly so farmers could use their land as collateral on loans. But that would limit politicians’ scope for making those big deals they love so much … so not much chance of that happening any time soon.

* By which I mean either straight conservation or combined conservation and development project. Obviously there are all sorts of education and health related interventions which have nothing to do with land tenure. It is, though, also a critical issue in recovery after natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, see David Week’s recent remarks on the issue. (Refer also to the post and comments on ActionAid Australia’s blog; it seems the government Haiti, in echoes of what I see here, was never much interested in land tenure reform or clarity before the earthquake either.)

Zoning farms and forests?

Apparently Jeffrey Sachs and a bunch of food scientists think we should zoning farmland according to the results of scientific assessments. (I don’t have a subscription to Nature, so am having to rely on Richard Black’s blog post.) As with much of what Prof Sachs suggests, it is hard to disagree with the principles he propounds, but I do wonder to what extent these ideas are feasible. In many human affairs the problem is not so much working out what would be the ideal way to manage something, but how to get from where we are (with all the vested interests and established ways) to where we want to get to. Political and social systems are inevitably evolved systems with all the inherent imperfections that kind of heritage implies. Richard Black draws the analogy with city planning, but most major cities in developing countries are largely unplanned, especially in the poorest countries, with development happening far faster than planners can keep up. Indeed unmanageable rules systems may well lead to corruption as being the only way out of the impasse.

Richard Black does point to some encouraging signs in Brazil, although arguably his examples are cases where conservationists have pragmatically surrendered the moral high ground in favour of active engagement with agricultural interests. I applaud the approach, but it is a big leap from such obvious self-interest to enlightened self-restraint when it comes to expanding your farm. As everyone from Brazilian soy-barons to Israeli settlers knows, facts on the ground count for an awful lot, and I fear land grabs will be a menace to conservation for many years to come. It would help, of course, if these land grabs were not encouraged by planning bureaucracies with ungrounded and over-simplified notions of land resources, of which I have seen a few examples at close quarters, and I suppose if Sachs et al’s proposed network of agricultural land research centres can help mitigate this then we should be thankful. But overall, I tend to side with Bill Easterly when it comes to the choice of Planners vs Seekers, and this kind of approach does rather sound like another gigantic planning exercise.

Projects such as Valuing the Arc are, I am sure, daunting technical challenges which should not be underestimated, and the researchers involved will have to use a range of innovative approaches to succeed. But it will take real visionary zeal and political cunning to translate such research into practical action. The research, alas, is usually the easy bit.

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