Land grab : opportunities for returns in lucrative export markets (IIED)

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Tackling the trade law dimension of ‘land grabbing’

by Lorenzo Cotula

As trade talks regain momentum, ‘land grab’ activists are scrutinising negotiations and pioneering new opportunities for public accountability.

Despite much talk about the imperative to ‘feed the planet’, opportunities for returns in lucrative export markets have been an important driver of large land deals for plantation agriculture in Africa and Asia.

Many land deals target food demand from rising urban middle classes in host countries. But much land acquisition involves plans to grow crops for export. This includes cereals like grains and rice, commodities like cotton and rubber, and ‘flex crops’ like oil palm, soy and sugarcane — which can be used for food, feed, fuel or industrial purposes.

This situation creates opportunities for public accountability. ‘Land grab’ campaigners looking for effective pressure points are increasingly targeting transnational corporations that buy agricultural commodities to produce food and consumer goods for global markets.

These companies may not acquire land themselves, but they may source huge volumes of farm produce from ‘land grabbers’ worldwide. Importantly, the companies may have global brands that are vulnerable to reputational risk, and they can exert significant leverage over their supply chains.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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