By Astrid Zweynert
01 Feb 2012, LONDON – The sell-off of prime land to buyers hungry for the developing world’s natural resources risks sparking civil unrest unless governments and investors recognise the customary rights of millions of people who have toiled these areas for centuries, land rights experts said on Wednesday.
Soaring investment in infrastructure, mining and agribusiness in Asia and Latin America is spreading to Africa, where a lack of legislation on land rights means local communities are regularly bypassed, fuelling anger and resentment.
“Controversial land acquisitions were a key factor triggering the civil wars in Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and there is every reason to be concerned that conditions are ripe for new conflicts to occur in many places,” Jeffrey Hatcher, director of global programmes at the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), said at a news conference held to release two reports into land tenure.
The RRI estimates that half a billion people rely on 1.4 billion hectares of communally held rural land in sub-Saharan Africa, which has attracted the largest share of investor interest recently.
Presenting the result of an analysis of tenure rights in 35 African countries, Hatcher said that customary land rights were being repeatedly ignored during what he called an “astonishing buying spree across Africa”.
Large land deals in developing countries have surged in the past decade, fuelled mostly by concerns about food shortages, a biofuels boom and the rising scarcity and financial value of agricultural land.
As foreign investment in Africa grows, experts say legal empowerment of rural communities is critical, including education about legal rights and information about the ramifications of land concessions.
“NEW SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA”
Two thirds of lands being acquired are in Africa, suggesting a “new scramble” for the continent, according to an analysis for RRI by international land tenure expert Liz Alden Wily.
Like in the 19th-century colonial scramble for Africa, land is either acquired to channel commodities produced there into the investor country, or with the intention of not producing anything at all there but selling it on at a substantial profit.
The majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land in Africa, including forests, rangelands and marshlands, are claimed by governments while communities who often have lived there for centuries say the land belongs to them.
This affects at least 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Alden Wily’s analysis.
“Every corner of every state has a customary owner, “ Alden Wiley concluded in her study.
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