The Global Biofuel Production and its impact on the Land Tenure of the Rural Poor

In Sub-Saharan Africa

Term Paper, 2012

28 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction and Background
1.1 Current Large-scale Land Investments
1.2 Insecure Land Rights Attract International Investors
1.3 Land Grab or a Chance for Agricultural Development in Developing Countries?
1.4 Structure and Research Question of the Seminar Paper

2. Eviction of the Rural Poor in Sub-Saharan Africa due to Large-Scale Land Investments

3. Sub-Saharan Africa as one of the most Attractive Regions for Investors - Sell out of African Lands
3.1 Land Tenure in Africa
3.2 Major Trends of Land Tenure throughout the African Continent

4. Towards a “Modern” System of Land Tenure?
4.1 Registering of Land Titles
4.2 An Inductive Approach instead of Private Property Rights
4.3 Land Tenure Reforms
4.3.1 Redistribution
4.3.2 Distribution
4.3.3 Non-(re)distribution
4.3.4 (Re)Concentration

5. The Best Possible Solution Concerning Land Tenure which Serves the Rural Poor during Big Land Deals by Foreign Investors

6. Case studies
6.1 Ghana: A rather Bad Example on the Cultivation of Jatropha Curcas through an Investor from Norway for Biofuel Production
6.2 Mozambique: An (at least on paper) Positive Example in Establishing Safeguards for Local Land Rights

7. The Responsibility of the Foreign Investors towards the Rural Poor

8. What is Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI)?

9. Conclusion

10. Sources

11. Appendix


The global biofuel production has been rapidly increasing since 2007-08 and with it the new demand for land, which has a strong focus on Africa as it has weak land rights protection. Most foreign investors, who intend to buy land for the biofuel production take advantage of the lack of proper property rights in several African countries. Therefore, many of the rural poor, who depend on land for their living, suffer from expulsion or dispossession. In summary, it can be said that the formalization of land titles only serves the poor, when secondary rights as for example for women, herders or migrants, are respected by the state or the foreign investors when allocating, buying or leasing land. In addition, during the processes of allocating, buying or leasing land, the state as well as the foreign investor should give whole local communities (not only local elites) the possibility to negotiate over the future use of the land they tilled for years. From the four land tenure reforms outlined, where land based wealth and power transfers occurs, the two best possible solutions, which serve the poor, would be the redistribution and the distribution of land. In my opinion, the preferable one of this two solutions is distribution as this solution is less conflict-prone. In the present paper two case studies are used to show how (as in the case of Ghana) local elites or foreign investors make decisions without consulting local communities or, that simply changing laws or introduce policies is not enough to protect the land rights of the affected local communities (as in the case of Mozambique). Even if local communities are compensated for loss of their land rights, many agreements between communities and investors emphasize one-off compensations rather than long-term benefit sharing, such as job creation or leasing incomes and the agreements usually involve very small payments compared to for example the value of the forest concessions acquired by investors.

1. Introduction and Background

1.1 Current Large-scale Land Investments

A main factor for the recent, worldwide rise in land acquisitions is the 2007-08 global food price crisis, when investors and governments realized that agriculture is a fundamental determinant in the future (see Borras & Franco 2010: 4; Oxfam 2011: 2). However, several other factors can be observed that explain why land investments become increasingly important for governments and international investors alike. One factor is the growing world population, which is excepted to grow from seven billion in 2011 to nine billion by 2050. The global economy demanding more scarce natural and agricultural resources make up another essential factor, as it is excepted to triple by 2050. Additionally, diets worldwide are changing to more land-intensive products, such as animal proteins and convenience foods. It is expected that production will double by 2050, increasing the land area under cultivation worldwide to 24 million hectares. As the demand of food will increase rapidly and constantly it will need to be met by land resources. However, land resources are under increasing pressure from climate change or water depletion, as well as through biofuel production, carbon sequestration and forest conservation, timber production, and non-food-crops (see Oxfam 2011: 7). Another factor which should not be overlooked is the oncoming oil peak, which creates powerful incentives for companies to acquire land for the production of crops for biofuel (see Graham et al. 2009/10: 20; Hall & Paradza 2011/12: 12). In developing countries, as many as 227 million hectares of land have been sold since 2001, which is equivalent to the size of Western Europe. The purchaser of this land are mostly international investors. An intense increase of land acquisition can be observed over the past three years and the current land deals are often intended to produce for foreign food as well as biofuel markets (see Oxfam 2011: 2).

1.2 Insecure Land Rights Attract International Investors

The new land demand, which has been increasing rapidly since 2007-08, has a strong focus on Africa and other countries with weak land rights protection. The weak recognition of land rights at the country level is strongly connected with higher levels of demand (see Deininger 2011: 217f). According to Deininger a lack of proper institutions within a country and the failure to formalize the land rights attract many investors and therefore the social and environmental risks of large-scale land acquisition could be intensified. Furthermore, to the extent, that weak recognition of land rights is linked to limited institutional capacity, strong civil society monitoring will be needed to prevent abuse and corruption (see Deininger 2011: 224f). In sub-Saharan Africa, socio-economic changes have in many places eroded the customary rules and institutions that have traditionally administered land rights (see Cotula et al. 2004: 1). Dispossession or displacement is occurring due to the current land rush. This is particularly evident in areas with unclear and insecure land rights but, as we will see in the course of this work, also in places, where the local people have very clear land rights, for example those who are land reform beneficiaries (see Borras & Franco 2010: 23).

1.3 Land Grab or a Chance for Agricultural Development in Developing Countries?

The enhanced demand for so called idle, marginal or available land1 or land resources generally due to population growth, the increased demand for more resources of the global economy or changes in the diet has lead to so called land grabs (see Oxfam 2011:2). The most common definition of land grabs refers to large-scale land acquisition, purchased or leased, for agricultural production by foreign investors (see Graham et al. 2009/10: 17). In this sense, the term land grab is used when land acquisitions violate human rights - especially women's rights -, ignore the principle of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC)2 of the affected land users, with particular focus on indigenous people. Furthermore, land acquisitions violate human rights when the impacts of social, economic and gender relations and on the environment are ignored, transparent contracts with clear and binding commitments on employment and benefit sharing, democratic planning or independent oversight and meaningful participation are avoided. Land grabbing poses a serious threat to the food sovereignty of the concerned people and to the right to food of rural communities (see Oxfam 2011: 2).

Foreign land acquisition particularly undermines access and control of resources of the local population. In sub-Saharan Africa the majority of people are peasant farmers and rely heavily on access to natural resources to feed themselves. Thus, losing access to land and related resources in the course of land grabbing, leads for the great majority of these communities to a reduced access to resources in order to feed themselves and severely affects their right to an adequate standard of living including food and housing, even when cases where compensation and rehabilitation is granted (see Graham et al. 2009/10: 24). As we shall see later on, agricultural development in sub-Saharan African countries owing to biofuel production is rarely guaranteed in practice.

1.4 Structure and Research Question of the Seminar Paper

This paper intends to answer the research question: which are the best possible solutions to secure land rights for the poor, rural population, that depends on land for its subsistence in sub-Saharan Africa so that they are not affected by current unfavorable land deals with foreign investors? To answer this question this paper begins by providing some figures on the eviction of rural people due to large-scale land investments in sub-Saharan Africa in order to show the urgency that action must be taken to protect the local population and their land rights. Thereafter, existing major land tenure trends throughout sub-Saharan Africa are outlined as well as concepts to change it, in order to disclose pro poor solutions on behalf of large-scale land investments. The paper will also illustrate two specific case studies. On the one hand the biofuel land grabbing in Northern Ghana, where a Norwegian biofuel company took advantage of Africa’s traditional system of communal land ownership. On the other hand the seemingly positive example of Mozambique. Finally, I will demonstrate what foreign investors can do in order not to violate the human rights of the rural poor, especially their right to food and property.

2. Eviction of the Rural Poor in Sub-Saharan Africa due to Large-Scale Land Investments

Land tenure is a complex issue. Land rights are often not recognized, local farmers can be displaced and not even compensated for their loss. Incentives for the elites and government to protect public goods rather than private interests are low and often lack credibility. In these circumstances, investments in land are likely to worsen local food security, increasing the risks of conflicts and social tensions as well as undermining access to water (see Giovannetti & Ticci 2011: 38).

Access to land or rights over land in Africa are predominately based on tradition, custom or culture, and are not necessarily governed by domestic legislation. In many cases, there is no legally enforceable status over land and/or the land is state owned with rights of access never properly defined. Often, a plurality of non-coherent norms and legal regimes governing land issues exist which tend to lead to conflict. However, even where communities have clearly enforceable rights to their lands, they face expropriation and forced evictions without appropriate compensation when foreign investors target their lands (see Graham et al. 2009/10: 24).

In August 2001, approximately 2041 individuals in Uganda lost their land through forced eviction. FIAN3 investigated the case for 9 years. The Ugandan government leased land to a German coffee trader to establish a plantation under its local subsidiary Kaweri Coffee Plantation Ltd. The concerned 401 families were not adequately consulted during the land allocation process. There was a lack of clarity concerning the plots on which Kaweri staked its claims, the government does not recognize and protect the right of the occupants over their traditional land even though the provisions of Ugandan law, which recognizes both the bonafide (illegal) and lawful occupants. Under the Land Act of 1998 dispossessions can only be carried out in exchange for compensation, and even illegal occupants may not be displaced after a period of 12 years. If within this time the proprietor has not told them to leave the land (see Graham et al. 2009/10: 35). However, during the eviction, the army demolished houses, destroyed property, and confiscated staple crops. In addition, only 2 per cent of the evictees have been insufficiently compensated since the eviction (see Graham et al. 2009/10: 34). This example shows that clear, formal land rights do not protect against dispossession in all cases. Hence, a focus on formal aspects of tenure security as a response to land grabbing is insufficient (see Graham et al. 2009/10: 24).

3. Sub-Saharan Africa as one of the most Attractive Regions for Investors - Sell out of African Lands

Up to 90 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s land area is currently untitled. Therefore, this land falls to the state, which makes it easy to lease to foreign investors. For a century African land laws have protected private property, but limited this protection to lands with registered titles. Today, titled lands are still largely limited to the former white farms of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and parts of Kenya. In any case, titling as currently structured is not a panacea. Most states limit peasant lands eligible for registration to homesteads. As a result only a small part of the land is owned and used by half a billion rural Africans across the continent. For the international land tenure specialist, Alden Wily, creating wealth through mass dispossession of the poor has tacit global support, including from the World Bank and other agencies that have failed to guide agrarian economies towards fairer, even though slower, paths to growth (see Alden Wily 2012).

3.1 Land Tenure in Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa land is becoming increasingly scarce and this has resulted in competition for land between multiple land users as farmers and herders, urban elites and foreign investors. Customary rules and institutions, which in the past have traditionally administered land rights, have been eroded due to socio-economic change. Since the 1990s many African countries have adopted new constitutions and many of this enshrine key principles concerning land relations, which are then enforced through legislation. Some major trends can be identified throughout the continent but the land question in African countries vary due to different historical, geographical, economic, social, political and cultural factors (see Cotula et al. 2004: 1).

3.2 Major Trends of Land Tenure throughout the African Continent

Land tenure in Africa is often either customary/traditional or state/statutory. Whereas customary land tenure is characterized by a mostly unwritten nature, flexible, negotiable and depend on location as well as based on local practices and norms. State systems of land tenure are usually based on written laws and regulations. Land rights are assigned and confirmed through land titles or other forms of registration of ownership (see Cotula et al. 2004: 1). Nowadays, these two models of land tenure are not clearly distinguishable, as customary systems have been changed through the contact with governments and international interference, during the colonial period and since independence. For example, statutory systems for land management usually work with possibilities to negotiate and African farmers gain access to land through a range of customary, statutory or hybrid institutions and regulations. This phenomenon is referred to as legal pluralism. However, the lack of coordination between the different structures fosters tenure insecurity (see Cotula et al. 2004: 2).

In sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, property rights and land policies are often the focus of dispute and struggle between different social classes and interest groups as well as between interest groups and the state. Borras and Franco have been looking into existing chaotic land based social relations, to see beyond, what state-simplified standard categories on property rights hide as they want to get an insight into actual dynamics around land property relations change. Such a view constitutes a contrast to the past and current bias of mainstream development institutions on producing as much land titles as possible that can be used as collaterals in rural poor people’s financial transactions so that the state can start taxing the rural poor. Borras & Franco criticize such land projects and state that they are mostly concerned with legal documents but not reforming social relations that exist (see Borras & Franco 2010: 24).

4. Towards a “Modern” System of Land Tenure?

Many governments in Africa and elsewhere consider customary land tenure systems as “backward” and a constraint on development. The instrumentalist arguments for securing land rights, which emphasizes the positive outcomes of tenure security for internal reinvestment by smallholders, investment by external investors, social and political stability, and economic growth for securing land rights, are also dominant among international development organizations. The economic benefits of secure tenure have been seen as the ability to reach direct-use benefits, incentives to invest, rising asset values, transfer to those better able and willing to use the land, the basis for promoting credit markets, more sustainable land use and management practices as well as a minimizing of conflicts over land and displacement (see Hall & Paradza 2011/12: 8).

Furthermore, these instrumentalists arguments tend to converge with those of human rights advocates, who emphasize the need to recognize and secure land rights. Both sides see clear and secure land and property rights as a warrantor for helping to increase economic growth, handle inequality and reduce poverty. Such rights enables people to invest in their future, open up space for new housing and provide opportunities for investment and accumulation of wealth. Secure property rights provide a basis for tackling disputes over land and might reduce the risk of conflict. According to the Department for International Development, from the UK aid, secure property rights are also a basis for establishing a broader spectrum of rights (see Hall & Paradza 2011/12: 8). In this section I would like to show different solutions, which are applied with the aim to achieve tenure security for the landless or almost landless rural poor, when they are affected by large-scale investments of foreign investors.

4.1 Registering of Land Titles

The principal reason to eradicate customary land tenure systems and to replace them with a “modern” system was the opinion that tenure security only can be achieved through land titling and registration. Four main arguments in favor of registering title to land convinced many post-independence governments in sub-Saharan Africa to register land rights and to convert customary rights into private ownership: registration allows a more efficient use of land since it increases tenure security and creates incentives to invest in the longer term management and productivity of the land, a land market can be established as to transfer land from less to more dynamic farmers, it enables farmers to get access to credit to invest in land improvements and finally provides governments with information about the land owners and the size of their land, thereby it provides a basis for a property tax system. Nevertheless, very little land of the most of sub-Saharan Africa has currently been registered as private property (see Cotula et al. 2004: 2f).

A crucial disadvantage of land registration that Cotula et al. pointing out, is, that it penalizes holders of secondary land rights, such as women and herders, since these rights often do not appear in the land register and through registration of land the secondary holders are automatically expropriated. Moreover, registration may not be enough to improve the access to credit where high transaction and other costs hinder credit supply in rural areas. In addition, the unpredictable and fluctuating environment makes farmers unwilling to take risks and hence reluctant to apply for loans. The last strong argument for Cotula et al. against registering of land transactions is, where monetary and other costs are high, land transfers tend not to be recorded and the register becomes rapidly obsolete, thus limiting the potentially positive effects of registration. As for incentives to invest, tenure security is largely dependent on the right-holder’s own perception.


1 The World Bank undertook an influential assessment of the world’s “available land” and concluded that the non-cultivated area suitable for cropping that is non-forested, non-protected, and populated with less than 25 persons/km2 amounts to 446 million hectares. However, this diagnosis misses some important points; measures of “potential production” under “best practices” is not possible in areas with poor infrastructure, limited input supplies and inadequate market connections. Furthermore, availability suggests that there are no claims over the land (see White et al. 2012: 632).

2 The most recent definition of FPIC is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which contains a number of provisions that address FPIC in article 10 (concerning the forced relocation without the FPIC of certain indigenous peoples), article 11 (concerning the cultural manifestation, protection and development without FPIC), article 19 (States shall consult and cooperate with the indigenous peoples and obtain the FPIC before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures), article 29 (conservation and protection of the environment with FPIC), article 30 (military activities shall not take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their FPIC) and article 32 (development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources only with FPIC) (cf. UNDRIP).

3 FIAN is an international membership organization. The organization has worldwide some 45 active local- groups. FIAN uses various tools to achieve the realization of the right to adequate food (see:

Excerpt out of 28 pages


The Global Biofuel Production and its impact on the Land Tenure of the Rural Poor
In Sub-Saharan Africa
University of Luzern  (ethnologisches Seminar)
Land Grabbing
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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492 KB
Land Grabbing, Afrika, governance of rights
Quote paper
Martina Schöb (Author), 2012, The Global Biofuel Production and its impact on the Land Tenure of the Rural Poor, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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