Over the last two decades, companies in search of vast tracts of available land for agriculture, mining, and other uses have increasingly turned to rural Asia and Africa. From 2008 to 2010, between 51 and 63 million hectares of land were acquired on the African continent through such large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs)—equivalent to an area roughly the size of Kenya. Our experience on the ground suggests that the pace at which companies acquire land has only accelerated since. Yet research from RRI and others demonstrates that Indigenous Peoples and local communities have inhabited and managed the vast majority of the lands acquired in LSLAs for generations.
While some communities are receptive to land-based investments, in practice LSLAs generally have negative impacts on the environmental, economic, and cultural wellbeing of local communities. For this reason, local and international laws—such as those requiring companies to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of communities for projects that affect them—have been enacted to govern the process by which powerful actors can acquire land. Unfortunately, studies show that such laws and practices are typically disregarded during LSLAs. In Ghana, a study conducted by Civic Response in three communities (Ananekrom, Bantama, and Akikasu-Ofaada-Esuotwene) revealed that “large-scale land acquisitions in the country, especially within the frame of customary tenure do not meet the FPIC guidelines and the requirements of most of the laws and policies of the country.” As a result, many Indigenous Peoples are dispossessed of the lands they had tilled and lived on for generations.
Although the repercussions of LSLAs affect entire communities, women suffer the most. The Civic Response study revealed the gendered dimensions of LSLAs: while customary law grants land-use rights to both male and female members of a lineage, land tends to be allocated to men. Hence, while men in the studied communities could readily access land for farming activities, women usually had to rely on male relatives to give them access to land for farming. The study showed that when communities’ crops were destroyed during LSLAs, only men received compensation, typically for cash crops. The women, who typically produced subsistence food crops, were not compensated. Women thus not only lost their livelihoods as a result of LSLAs, but also failed to receive promised compensation, leading them to rely even more on the men in their communities. This also takes a toll on families, forcing them to make do with fewer resources, and negatively affects the overall wellbeing of entire communities.
While companies promise employment opportunities to community members as compensation for lost lands, the evidence shows that women often face a choice between providing financially for themselves and their families or continuing to carry out domestic responsibilities. A study produced by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) on the gendered impacts of LSLAs in Indonesia found that while women can access employment opportunities with oil palm companies that have acquired their lands, they are barred from working while pregnant or breastfeeding due to companies’ failure to temporarily reassign them. This puts women in the difficult position of having to choose between their children and their work.
Other studies have shown that the impact of LSLAs on community nutrition and food production disproportionately affects women. A case study conducted by International Forestry Research and Institutions (IFRI) on the impact of LSLAs in Ethiopia showed that women are disproportionately burdened by food shortages provoked by the scarcity of arable community lands in the wake of LSLAs. Because women in the community generally take responsibility for providing food for their households, women “often eat less, or skip meals altogether” when faced with food shortages. This results in women being most affected by malnutrition, which contributes to a host of problems, such as complications during childbirth.
The IFRI study also showed that LSLAs result in weaker inheritance rights for women. Due to increasing land shortages, men are given larger portions of land than their female siblings, on the premise that women can marry into land. The research forecasts that this outcome will lead to power imbalances in the future. Given that women’s tenure rights are associated with numerous positive development outcomes—such as food security, higher incomes, and better stewardship of resources and the environment—such imbalances ultimately hamper the progress of indigenous communities as a whole.
Women constitute more than half the population of the world’s Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and LSLAs affect them more significantly than men. When women are disadvantaged by LSLAs, it has a ripple effect on their dependents. What the studies on this subject show—and what is borne out by our experience on the ground—is that companies acquiring land not only have an obligation to consult with community representatives as part of the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent process. They must also consult with community women in order for the process to be truly representative.
The effects of large-scale land acquisition on women are enormous and go beyond women themselves, impacting entire communities and larger development goals. In order to fully address the impacts of LSLAs on communities and the broader development agenda, acknowledging women’s rights within communities is a crucial first step.