Posts Tagged ‘land grabs’

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.

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.

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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