The Global Land Rush: Markets, Rights, and the Politics of Food

By Narula, Smita | Stanford Journal of International Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Global Land Rush: Markets, Rights, and the Politics of Food

Narula, Smita, Stanford Journal of International Law

In the past five years, interest in purchasing and leasing agricultural land in developing countries has skyrocketed. This trend, which was facilitated by the 2008 food crisis, is led by state and private investors, both domestic and foreign. Investors are responding to a variety of global forces: Some are securing their own food supply, while others are capitalizing on land as an increasingly promising source of financial returns. Proponents argue that these investments can support economic development in host states while boosting global food roduction. But critics charge that these "land grabs" disregard land users' rights and further marginalize already vulnerable groups." small-scale farmers, pastoralists, and indigenous peoples who are being displaced from their land and from resources essential to their survival. Amid mounting global protests, two dominant frameworks have emerged to assess and contest the global rush for agricultural land. This Article critically examines both approaches.

Part I provides an overview of the drivers and impacts of large-scale land transfers and the problematic land transactions involved. Part II sets out the contours of what I term the market-plus approach and the rights based approach--the frameworks assumed respectively by proponents and opponents of these deals. Part III analyzes key conceptual differences in each framework's approach to rights and risks and to land distribution. I argue that the market-plus approach tolerates and facilitates rights violations, whereas the rights-based approach sets a normative baseline that repudiates these impacts and addresses key distributive concerns. Part III assesses the potential of each approach to effectively regulate land deals in practice. I find that both approaches emphasize procedural safeguards to protect land users' rights and argue that these safeguards" are ineffective at contesting the power dynamics at play in land transactions. Part IV proposes concrete reforms to help empower communities most affected by land deals and argues that international actors must be more involved in securing rights protections.



    A. Drivers and Actors Behind Large-Scale Land Transfers
    B. Land Transfers and Transactions: Documented Problems
    C. Negative Impacts on Host Communities


    A. The Market-Plus Approach
    1. The Market-Plus Approach to Land: Land as a Commodity
    2. "Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that
         Respects Rights, Livelihoods and Resources"

    B. The Rights-Based Approach
    1. The Rights-Based Approach to Land: Land as a Gateway to
         Human Rights

2. "Eleven Principles: Minimum Human Rights Principles
         Applicable to Large-scale Land Acquisitions or Leases"


    A. Principal Distinctions: Rights, Risks, and Land Distribution
    1. Risks vs. Rights Violations
    a. Framing and its Consequences
    b. Repudiating Rights Violations and Managing Trade-Offs
    c. Addressing Distributive Concerns and Managing Conflicts
          Between Rights Holders
    2. Land Markets and Land Distribution
    a. The Market-Plus Approach: Enhancing Productivity or
          Exacerbating Problems?
    b. The Rights-Based Approach: Making the Case for Agrarian
    B. Overlapping Problems: The Limitations of Procedural Safeguards
    1. The RAI Principles: A Misplaced Focus on Procedural Fairness
    2. The Eleven Principles: Procedural Means for Substantive Ends
    3. A Critical Challenge: Generating Political Will


    A. Resistance Strategies and the Need for Structural Support
    B. Restricting and Regulating Large-Scale Land Transfers
    C. Reforming our Approach to Land: A Framework for the Future



In 2011, Saudi Star PLC leased roughly 25,000 acres of Ethiopia's most fertile farmland from the Ethiopian government to produce rice for export to the Middle East.

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