The knowns and unknowns of the global land rush

Researchers studying land acquisitions in the global south face many challenges, including trying to measure the exact scale of the problem. Developing rigorous methods to assess how the rush for land is exacerbating land scarcity and affecting people locally is perhaps the most promising way to measure what the scale of the land rush means for recipient countries and the people who live in them, says Lorenzo Cotula.

Men stand by trays of cocoa beans drying in the sun in western Ghana.

Four years since the media spotlight turned to the global land rush, more and better research has provided more robust evidence and sophisticated analyses of the deeper social transformations underway. Yet there is still much that we don’t know, and much questioning to be done about what we think we do know.

The challenges of researching land grabs was one of the subjects of debate at the Land Deals Politics Initiative (LDPI)’s second international conference on ‘Global Land Grabbing’. A roundtable on the methodological challenges of researching the land rush interrogated the quality of the evidence base, and the multiple and not always converging purposes of data collection – from improving understanding, to promoting accountability.

Marc Edelman and Carlos Oya articulated some of the reasons why global datasets must be taken with a healthy pinch of salt. A few reasons were also outlined in an IIED briefing note published earlier this year.

Take discussions about the scale of the land rush. Since the deals started unfolding, there has been much debate about how much land has been acquired, where and by whom. Today, there is evidence that media reports have over-estimated the importance of some deals and players. For example, Deborah Brautigam’s work over the years has shown that media reports about land acquisitions by China in Africa are vastly over-blown. A paper presented at the conference challenged the perception that South Korea has been an important land acquirer, particularly in Africa.

But it’s also increasingly clear that other aspects of the land rush have remained below the public radar. A conference paper suggested that Japan has had a “low profile” in the overall reporting on global land grabs, although it is also possible that Japan is pursuing different options for securing its much-needed agricultural commodity supplies.  

Global datasets are likely to greatly underestimate land acquisition by nationals and to overstate those by transnational corporations. While land acquisitions by transnational corporations have dominated the headlines, many villagers are feeling the squeeze because of the growing concentration of land holdings in the hands of fewer wealthy national individuals or companies.

Politicians, army generals, former liberation fighters, high-level government officials and business people are the recurring faces driving the land rush within countries. And sustained economic growth and rapid urbanisation in many poorer countries have led to the emergence of growing middle classes interested in rural land as a means to store value and generate complementary income. The individual size of these deals may be smaller than the international deals, but their aggregate land area can be much larger – as documented by a World Bank study last year. And the involvement of national elites in the land rush is perhaps the single most important reason for the pervasive lack of transparency in the deals.

So, how do we define the scale of the global land rush? Do we do this as an aggregate, absolute number or through more qualitative indicators of how the deals are increasing pressures on the land?

As the research agenda becomes more ambitious and sophisticated, an excessive focus on pinning down the exact quantity of land that is being transacted is unlikely to pay off; some inconsistencies in datasets are rooted in conceptual and methodological problems that are difficult to overcome. For example, a single land deal may involve various areas of land over different time scales: a contract may lease a plot to an investor but also give the investor the right to expand the plantation beyond that plot.  For example, a land deal may involve, say, 20,000 ha of land, but the company is provided with the option to take an additional 17,000 ha within 15 years. In that case, is the deal for 20,000 ha or 37,000 ha?

The speed of change also creates challenges. Presenting at the roundtable on methodology, Ward Anseeuw, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) involved with the Land Matrix, pointed out that the land rush is a fluid, fast-evolving arena where deals are signed, abandoned or transferred at a speed that makes it difficult for inventory exercises to keep track of.

Because of these conceptual and methodological challenges, there will never be a single, ‘true’ figure for how much land has been acquired globally or even in a given country. The scale of land acquisitions can at best be expressed as a range between bottom and top-end figures.

But does this really matter? Surely figures about scale can only be understood by analysing the local context. Although it’s important to measure the aggregate scale of the land acquired as accurately as possible, it’s perhaps even more important to analyse how the deals are exacerbating competition for land in a given context. Where land pressures are increasing as a result of demographic growth, extractive industry developments and the growing commercialisation of local agriculture, acquiring even a small land area can significantly disrupt local livelihoods.

Developing rigorous methods to assess how the rush for land is exacerbating land scarcity in a given location, whatever the size of land acquired in absolute terms, is perhaps the most promising way to measure what the scale of the land rush means for recipient countries and the people who live in them. Who is willing to take up the challenge?

Read the many papers presented at the conference on the multiple facets of the global land rush covering players, governance and local resistance.

The blog contains the authors’ personal views and does not represent the view of IIED. IIED accepts no liability for your use of or reliance on information found on the blog. IIED does not edit and is therefore not responsible for any comments, but reserves the right to review/remove any comment at any time. If you wish to report a comment for any reason, please contact us or flag the comment on the comments system. When using the blog and posting comments you agree to be bound by the terms of the IIED website terms and conditions (which includes the privacy policy), and you agree that any blog you submit or access is subject to the terms of the blog licence.