Recent years have seen significant increases in large land deals across Asia. There is growing pressure on land for investments in extractive resources, agriculture, aquaculture, biofuels, infrastructure and real estate development. The rising demand has further fuelled land investments, speculation and sometimes illegal and unethical transfer of lands.
Highly skewed land ownership distributions and discrimination along lines of gender and ethnicity have limited economic opportunities for disadvantaged groups and, in addition, have led to social conflict and human rights abuses. However, the complexity of land rights issues and the fact that change is often fiercely resisted by vested interests, benefiting from the status quo, have frustrated many efforts to bring about policy change.
While commercial investment in land has the potential to contribute to economic development opportunities, it is often a major source of controversy and conflict over land tenure. The recent boom in large scale land acquisitions in Asia has benefited domestic elites as well as foreign investors. However, development opportunities have often been missed or even reversed where it has disadvantaged local communities and especially the poor, indigenous peoples, women and other vulnerable groups.
Weak land governance systems, powerful elites in business and politics, cronyism, inequality and corruption create a permissive environment for practices where communities are evicted from land, customary land use rights are ignored, community land is sold as available or unused and compensation is inadequate. Poor, marginalised and vulnerable people and communities lack the power to advance their interests and have little recourse or access to grievance mechanisms.
Such practices are often characterised as “land grabs”. Rather than leading to development opportunities from investment in land use, livelihoods are lost, human rights violated, and poverty and exclusion perpetuated. In many of Asia’s land grab conflicts, companies have been complicit in to practices that have deprived local communities of land use rights and in human rights violations.
The private sector has a role to play in helping to protect the land rights of vulnerable and marginalised people and in ensuring that human rights associated with land tenure issues are not abused. Businesses can play an important part in protecting smallholders and communities along their value chains through more inclusive business practices. In so-doing they will benefit from a healthy and secure supply chain.
The role of smallholders and fair practices in integrating small producers in value chains is a key focus for sustainable business practices in both agriculture and aquaculture where small producers often lose out to big business over land and resource rights. As part of a commitment to the protection of land rights for local communities, initiatives to make value chains more inclusive can help to give communities, local indigenous peoples and women a greater role in determining land use and changes in that use. Land and tenure rights are increasingly being addressed by MSIs such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and others.
Responsible and inclusive business practices should therefore consider land rights, including sustainable natural resource use, efforts to counter land grabbing practices, the effective management of business impacts on land and the risks associated with conflicts. Tackling these issues is often challenging, especially when unclear land titles lead to legal uncertainty and weak land governance systems are marred by corruption, cronyism, vested interests and the legacies of historical governance failures.
In this context, responsible businesses will commit themselves to a ten-point plan around:
- Understanding the local context and implications of land use decisions for local communities, especially poor and vulnerable people and any consequent potential human rights abuses
- Engaging with stakeholders to understand their concerns and aspirations, ensuring that the vulnerable, and in particular indigenous peoples and women, have a voice
- Identifying and addressing real and potential conflicts over land and tenure rights, community interests, traditional land use and livelihoods, poverty and exclusion
- Putting in place a strategy and effective mechanisms to ensure the rights of communities affected by land deals and any grievances are addressed
- Adhering to international best practice standards, including following the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC)
- Negotiating with stakeholders over the use of land, changes in land use and risk and benefit sharing arrangements
- Supplementing and land use arrangements with community investment activities that ensure access to essential services, income and wealth creation for the community and access to technology
- Disclosing activities and processes related to land and land use rights acquisition and the results of stakeholder negotiations, in a transparent way
- Leveraging business influence and advocating the promotion of best practices with respect to land rights and associated human rights
- Accepting and addressing responsibility for community concerns and violations of land and tenure rights along supply chains, including in the case of investors, providing finance to projects where issues related to land use may arise
Next month, CSR Asia will be publishing a paper on conflicts over land and the role of the private sector, as part of our cooperation with Oxfam on inclusive agricultural value chains.