March 06, 2012

Who Owns the Land?

“The land belongs to me, and you are only strangers and guests.” (Leviticus 25:23)

Why, then, are vast stretches of land and ecosystems off limits for current and future use by peasants, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and nomads – jeopardizing their rights to food and livelihood?

How is it that these same people are denied or severely limited in their access to water because international corporations, absentee landlords, or rich landowners can capture whatever water resources exist on, below, and around these lands?

My land gave me everything. Now I'm one of the poorest." (Ugandan farmer, cited by John Vidal in The Guardian, September 22, 2011)

What driving force ignores “the violation of international human rights law through forced evictions, the silencing (and worse!) of critics, the introduction of abusive models of land use and agriculture that destroy natural environments and deplete natural resources, the blatant denial of information and the prevention of meaningful local participation in political decisions that affects people's lives?” (Source: La Via Campesina, et al., collective statement against responsible agriculture investment at

Land grabbing.

The mythical four elements of earth, air, fire and water – translated into contemporary language as land, atmosphere, solar energy and (always!) water – describe the building blocks of human survival.

Yet as a result of human exploitation and commodification, all of these vital elements that reveal such marvelous harmony and interdependence are dangerously at risk for all of us who share planet Earth.

The Durban Climate Conference report in the February 2, 2012 edition of Mercy E-News described the alarming situation and subsequent call to action to reverse the current march toward worldwide climate crisis. This review of land grabbing outlines a situation that is bringing time-honored dwellers and cultivators of land to desperation and, all too often, to suicidal despair.

What is “land grabbing”?

"Land grabbing is the foreclosure of vast stretches of land and ecosystems from current and future use by peasants, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and nomads, thus seriously jeopardizing their rights to food and livelihood security. “ Land grabbing captures whatever water resources exist on, below and around these lands. Land grabbing enables land to be sold, leased or licensed to [national and] foreign investors in secretive deals, often by legitimate governments. (Source: La Via Campesina and Grain, et al., collective statement against responsible agriculture investment at

“Rather than be codified and sanctioned, land grabbing must be immediately stopped and banned.”
(La Via Campesina report, April 2011)

How big is this?

Very big – and getting bigger.

A 2011 study estimated that an area the size of northwest Europe (primarily in Africa) is estimated to have been land grabbed. This is four times greater than the World Bank’s 2011 estimation of the problem. (Source: Oxfam International Report: Land and Power at and International Land Coalition Report: Land Rights and the Rush for Land at

How did we come to this?

Although land grabbing is nothing new, in the past decade this blatant takeover of both small farming lands and vast tracts of forests, mountains and rivers has increased at an alarming rate and is driven by:

  • Financial Investment: Growing financial speculation in food commodities as well as increasing farmland and commodities investments are causing a rush to acquire large areas of developing countries.
  • Neo-colonialism: Multinational corporations and financial investors, country elites with extractive industry and commercial agriculture interests have gained unprecedented access to natural resources of countries, especially those of sub-Saharan Africa. These national resources, including land, have been grabbed and destroyed, often in the name of development.
  • Climate change: Increasing consumer demand for food and threatened by food, water and energy insecurities due to climate change is driving developed counties to buy up land in developing countries in order to combat and solve their problems at home.
  • Biofuel needs: Escalating energy demands and international energy policy that mandates the use of biofuels in gas encourages governments, corporations and wealthy landowners to convert land to sugar cane and palm oil production in order to satisfy the demands of developed countries for biofuels.
  • Export commodities: Local people are driven to grow crops for an export and commodity market rather than for local consumption and sustenance. As a result of this shift, they lose entry to land for local food production.

 What happens to farmers, peasants and indigenous peoples in land grabs?

They lose.

Fact: Of the 5.5 billion population of the developing world, more than 3 billion live in rural areas. Agriculture is a source of livelihood for an estimated 86% of rural people. (Source: Food, Agriculture and Decent Work, ILO and FAO working together at

Fact: Fifty percent of the world’s hungry are smallhold farmer who depend mainly or partly on agriculture. Twenty percent of those suffering from hunger are landless and 10 percent earn their livelihoods from fishing, hunting and herding. (Source: A/HRC/ AC/86: Final Study of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on the advancement of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas)

Fact: As many as 70% of the world’s hungry are women and the majority of them work in agriculture. (Source: A/HRC/ AC/86: Final Study of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on the advancement of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas)

Fact: State and private investors, from Citadel Capital to Goldman Sachs, are leasing or buying up tens of millions of hectares of farmlands in Asia, Africa and Latin America for food and fuel production. (Source: La Via Campesina)

Fact: One way or the other, agricultural lands and forests are being diverted to commercial purposes and away from smallhold producers, fishers and pastoralists. The result is displacement, hunger and poverty. (Source: La Via Campesina)

“Selling of land to foreign investors and the de-nationalization of land degrades natural ecosystems by monoculture farming practices. Genetically modified crops and crops for biofuels replace a variety of food crops. Small and medium producers are rendered bankrupt and dispossessed when they cannot compete with large multinationals and are forced to sell their land.” (Sister Ana Maria Siufi, RSM, Argentina)

What must be done?

Nothing less than decisive action by international, national and local advocacy can begin to eradicate this abhorrent invasion of the rights of peoples worldwide.

Peasant groups, social movements and civil society organizations – all unanimously agree what must be done to stop land grabbing and to achieve food sovereignty, land tenure and sustainable livelihoods:

  1. Implement legitimate agrarian reform.
  2. Demand that governments, corporation and foreign investors respect and protect the basic human rights of peoples.
  3. Respect the resource rights of the rural poor in all large-scale land transactions.
  4. Require governments to invest in agroecology to benefit peasants, farmers, fisher folk and pastoralists.
  5. Reform farm and trade policies to embrace food sovereignty, as well as land and water rights.
  6. Return the control of the commons to the local people.
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability in decisions on land and water-based acquisitions and investments.
  8. Regulate corporate and foreign investment of land, bioregions and wetlands.
  9. Remove subsidies and overhaul international biofuel policies.
  10. Regulate the financial markets and stop food speculation.
  11. Hold accountable all investors and traders in food, land, water and energy.

(Sources: La Via Campesina and Grain. et al., collective statement on responsible agriculture investment at Oxfam International at and, the International Land Coalition

“Natural resources such as gold, copper, gas, wood and oil are granted to mining companies without the consent of the people who live there. In Pacaipampa, Peru, a 94% vote against a copper mine was declared illegal by the government.” (Sister Marielena McKenna, RSM, Peru, ¡Viva!Mercy, November/December 2011)

Who is acting now?

In the UN policy arena:

  • In March 2012, intergovernmental negotiations will continue in Rome on the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. The goal is to reach agreement on Voluntary Guidelines. Once agreed, these will be considered for adoption by a special session of the UN Committee on Food Security (CFS). (See
  • The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is recommending principles and measures to discipline land grabbing. In his role he is also addressing the underlying and systemic causes of food insecurity, including land tenure issues as well as trade and food speculation. (See
  • At their February 2012 meeting, the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council, Eighth session, will present the Final Study of the Committee on the advancement of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas. They will also recommend the adoption of a new instrument, a declaration, and the development of an international instrument to protect, fulfill and uphold peasants’ rights (Source: A/HRC/ AC/86: Final Study of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on the advancement of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.)

“Convert ‘land-grabs’ to peasants’ fields.” (ETC Group, Contributions to Zero Draft, 1 November 2011)

In the action arena:

  • Leading social and peasant movements and development agencies such as La Via Campesina, GRAIN, OXFAM, FIAN, and the Oakland Institute are campaigning tirelessly against land grabbing, uncovering the root causes of land grabbing and documenting and monitored cases worldwide.
  • These groups are also advancing solutions to the land, hunger, food, and climate crisis of our time, including promoting the practice of farming and agriculture based on ecological methods and enabling farmers’ access to markets.
  • In addition, they are orchestrating sustained efforts toward genuine agrarian reform through returning land and ecosystems to local communities.

In the world of Mercy:

Mercy serves in lands greatly affected: Africa, Argentina, Honduras, the Philippines and Panama.

During a recent survey of land, water, food and energy realities, our Sisters told the stories of the people with whom they journey in regions of Peru, Honduras, Argentina, Panama and the Philippines. They identified land grabbing, land oligopolies and neoliberal policies that continue to impact farmers and are the root causes of poverty and violations of human rights.

Our Sisters pinpoint especially the need to invest in farmers, agrarian reform, and the practice of agroecology in order to restore food sovereignty and empowerment of persons, especially women.

“The anti-mining groups are urgently concerned for Palawan, the last frontier in the Visayan Islands. … Unmatched in the country for its variety of species of flora and fauna, it contains mangrove areas, coral reefs, key biodiversity areas, UNESCO Heritage Sites and declared protected areas. However, mining permits are granted and new applications are increasing in these core protection zones. Old growth forests are cut down, water sources are polluted, ancestral lands are taken over and communities' wishes are ignored.” (Viva!Mercy, November/December 2011)

So What?

Renewing the face of the earth begins here:

Production, distribution and consumptions systems must radically change to fit the carrying capacity of the earth.

Responsible agriculture is emerging as a solution to mitigating climate change, reducing public health costs and creating jobs and making places more livable.

New agriculture policies that respond to the needs, proposals and direct control of small-scale food producers must replace current top-down, corporate-led neoliberal regimes.

Agrarian reform, upholding the rights of peoples and investment in small farm agriculture can help to raise people out of poverty and catalyze wider economic growth.

Poverty eradication, sustainable development, food security, climate mitigation and adaption – all of these sustainable futures depend upon agrarian reform, the development of agroecology, and upon investment in small farmers and peasants in realizing their human rights.

In short, land grabbing must be stopped. We cannot turn a blind eye to this gross injustice. Walking in solidarity with farmers, peasants and indigenous peoples embodies one of the most critical human rights actions of the 21st century.

How You Can Help

A. Learn more by following the work of:

  1. GRAIN at
  2. The Oakland Institute at
  3. Oxfam International at
  4. FIAN at
  5. ETC Group at

B. Speak, Support, Act in solidarity with:

  1. The 45,000 people in Gambella Province in Ethiopia who have been evicted in land grabbing (
  2. Human rights defenders’ concerns in the land conflict in Honduras (
  3. Peasants and farmers in their struggle to have rights of peasants recognized (

C. Call on your representatives and Lobby your government to:

  1. Reject subsidies and your government’s biofuel policy
  2. Stop speculation on food commodities
  3. Regulate accountability of financial markets and transnational corporations.
  4. Insist on agrarian reforms and land tenure rights for rural peoples

D. Join Oxfam’s campaign to fix the food system at or follow the work of FIAN International at

E. Rally against all extractive industry abuses.

F. Question the ethics of financial investments in agriculture and in farmland, especially in pension funds. ( and

G. Consider consuming less meat; promote and support local food cultures and economies.

We can do this!

The spirit of Mercy and justice cry out for the right to sustain and nurture the life of every person and every community – a right that is largely ignored by the greed without limits of this global economic system.” (Sister Ana Maria Siufi, RSM, Argentina)

Messages to: Rita Parks, RSM and to Áine O’Connor, RSM

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