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‘Land grab’: an environmental issue?
‘Land grab’: an environmental issue?

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5.1 Land acquisition or land grab?

The final activity in this course will help you to evaluate the land acquisition/land grab debate.

Activity 5 Land grab or land acquisition? Researching the debate

Timing: Allow 2 hours 30 minutes for this activity

In this activity you will carry out some online research, reach your own conclusion and consider the following question:

Is what is happening in Africa land acquisition or land grab? Why do you think this?

This is quite a testing question. Do not worry if the question seems difficult at first. The process of carrying out some online research will help to clarify your thinking on the question.

This question asks you to consider which of the two discourses – land acquisition or land grab – you are most persuaded by, and why. You might be guided in your answer by considering whether the characteristics of land grab identified by the charity organisation Oxfam apply. In Oxfam’s definition, land grab:

  • violates human rights, and particularly the equal rights of women
  • flouts the principle of free, prior and informed consent of the affected land users, particularly indigenous peoples
  • ignores the impacts on social, economic and gender relations, and on the environment
  • avoids transparent contracts with clear and binding commitments on employment and benefit sharing 
  • eschews democratic planning, independent oversight, and meaningful participation (Oxfam, 2011).

By contrast, and as you have seen, the phrase ‘land acquisition’ implies a transfer of land ownership that is legal, orderly and reasonable.

As you undertake your research try to consider the question by thinking through the analytical concepts to which you were introduced at the beginning of the course. Here is a reminder:

  • Use time and space to think about the history of land conflicts and where the various actors involved today are located
  • Use risk and uncertainty to think about how the different actors involved are exposed to different kinds of risks and uncertainties
  • Use values, power and agency to think about the different ways actors value the lands involved and the reasons for this; the power differentials between those actors; and how both values and power shape who has agency in these disputes.

Working with these concepts will help you to move from description of the problem to understanding.


We have suggested a few carefully selected resources for your research below. You are not restricted to these resources. Indeed, you may wish to do a little independent research. Regardless, be careful not to spend too much time on this, though, as the whole activity is only meant to take 2 hours 30 minutes. So you need to concentrate on finding what you consider to be the most relevant information and arguments. Here is an overview of the resources we have selected for you:

There are many references to particular contracts that form the basis of this study. The details do not need to concern you. What you are looking for is a selection of key points that speak to the question you are addressing, not exhaustive notes. Make no more than two pages of notes for this document as your brief is quite specific.

Skip the discussion of Indonesia, Honduras and Guatemala, as our focus is on Africa. As above, allow the concepts of time and space, risk and uncertainty, and values, power and agency to drive your note-taking.

Watch the film by David Hallam, Deputy Director of FAO’s Trade and Market Division. FDI stands for foreign direct investment. It is an investment made by an actor in one country directly into a business in another country. Hallam argues that foreign direct investments in land could be good news if the interests of land purchasers are reconciled with the investment needs of developing countries.

Make notes as you carry out your research. Then reach a conclusion to the question posed at the start of the activity:

Is what is happening in Africa land acquisition or land grab? Why do you think this?

Provide some reasoning on why you have reached your conclusion. Some points you may like to consider are:

  • whether the changes of ownership in land in Africa are legal
  • whether there is consultation with local people
  • whether there are benefits for the economy of the country
  • whether environmental protection is enhanced.


Discussion using the three sets of analytical concepts defined at the beginning of this course.

Time and space

Contemporary land acquisitions in Africa involve a range of actors, processes and commodities that stretch across spatial boundaries. Examples include land leased in Senegal by Saudi Arabia to grow rice to feed Saudi Arabian citizens and farming communities forging their own connections across spatial boundaries to contest land grabs.

Conflicts around land ownership stretch back to colonial times when the process began of overriding customary land rights to serve foreign interests. The terms of some land leases in Africa are 100 years. Such leases will have inter-generational consequences, impacting upon successive generations of farmers.

Risk and uncertainty

In the wake of the food crises of 2007–08 and 2010–11, many wealthy countries with land and water constraints grew concerned about food security because of the risks and uncertainty of relying on world food markets to satisfy domestic food needs. They sought to mitigate these risks by purchasing or leasing agricultural land in developing countries to grow food.

Similarly, many African governments whose populations have suffered as a result of food price rises leading to riots needed agricultural investment to boost productivity. Foreign investment through land deals offered the possibility of meeting this need and mitigating the risk of further food riots. However, and as Oxfam has argued, land grabs may introduce greater risk and uncertainty for local communities whose land has been taken, leading to food insecurity.

Different actors, therefore, face very different risks and uncertainties.

Values, power and agency

Different actors may have different values depending on where they live, their lifestyle and their beliefs. Land can be valued in different ways. Farmers in Africa have invested time and energy in the land for many generations. Specific areas of land may be important to the culture of some communities, which is why it has emotional and spiritual value beyond its use value. Government ministers may value land because of its potential for economic growth. Agricultural businesses may desire land because of the contribution it can make to profits and to increasing shareholder value.

There are power differentials between the foreign companies, the host government and local communities. Foreign companies have the economic resources to secure physical assets, for instance land and water access, in developing countries such as Senegal. They also have the power to frame the issue of land acquisition using a discourse of land deals rather than land grab.

Both host governments and foreign investors have power resources that they can bring to bear during negotiations on land. Each has something that the other wants: host governments are eager to encourage foreign direct investment in agriculture because of the potential development opportunities for the country, while investors need land. The IIED report Land Deals in Africa: What is in the Contracts? considers the benefits for host states of land contracts, and finds some contracts are worryingly short and vague. The 100-year term of most contracts seems to have been decided by investors. This suggests that investors tend to hold more power than host governments. Oxfam is concerned that some African countries are locked in a ‘race to the bottom’ where they are competing to attract foreign investors, which pushes down prices further and further. However, some countries such as Liberia have negotiated sophisticated and complex deals that are more likely to benefit the host government (IIED, 2011).

Other power differentials you might have noticed relate to land rental fees, infrastructure development, jobs, tax and independent auditing.

The actors with the least power are the local landholders or farmers. They often have to move off the land thus losing their livelihood, which undermines their food security. There is often no legal requirement to gain informed consent from the local landholders. Compensation can be paid, although not for the loss of land, because this is deemed to be the legal property of the state. Where international investors follow ethical practice, the compensation payments can be more generous than those required by local laws (IIED, 2011). However, references to environmental standards in many contracts are weak.