Land rights and investment treaties

2014 - 2019

Commercial land concessions may be protected under international investment treaties, with important implications for local land relations. Securing land rights requires tackling these global dimensions.

aerial view of an oil palm plantation

An aerial view of an oil palm plantation and the edge of the forest near Sentabai Village, West Kalimantan (Photo: Nanang Sujana/CIFOR via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As economic globalisation intensifies and expands its reach, growing global consumption is placing the world's natural resources under unprecedented pressure. Petroleum and minerals are extracted in previously marginal sites, and agribusiness developments have extended their reach, displacing natural habitats and non-intensive land and resource use.

The effects of some 'land grab' deals are now clear to see: lands previously used for common grazing or foraging have been converted to monoculture. More intangible, but equally important changes in international law are shifting the balance between private interests and public authority in competing natural resource claims.

As demand for valuable lands intensifies and land relations become more transnational, struggles over land increasingly rely on international law – creating new opportunities to challenge and demand accountability. For example, indigenous peoples have taken encroachments on their ancestral lands to international human rights bodies.

Meanwhile, international treaties protecting investments can have far-reaching consequences for land relations – whether in the context of redistributive reform or land restitution, or with regards to large-scale land-based investments. 

What did IIED do? 

We generated evidence on the linkages between land rights and investment treaties, and fed insights into policy processes at national and international levels. 


Land, property and sovereignty in international law, Lorenzo Cotula (2017), article in Cardozo Journal of International and Comparative Law

‘Land grabbing’ and international investment law: toward a global reconfiguration of property?, Lorenzo Cotula (2016), chapter in Yearbook on International Investment Law & Policy 2014-2015, Oxford University Press

Land rights, international law and a shrinking planet, Lorenzo Cotula (2015) IIED Briefing paper

Land deals and investment treaties: visualising the interface, Lorenzo Cotula, Thierry Berger (2015), IIED report

Land rights and investment treaties: exploring the interface, Lorenzo Cotula (2015), IIED report

Property in a shrinking planet: fault lines in international human rights and investment law, Lorenzo Cotula (2015), International Journal of Law in Context

The New Enclosures? Polanyi, international investment law and the global land rush, Lorenzo Cotula (2013), article in Third World Quarterly

‘Land grabbing’ in the shadow of the law: legal frameworks regulating the global land rush, Lorenzo Cotula (2012), Chapter in The Challenge of Food Security: International Policy and Regulatory Frameworks, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

Additional resources

Blog: Law and Political Economy of Commodity Rushes: Reflections on “Land Grabbing” in the Global South, Lorenzo Cotula (2019), Law and Political Economy blog

Land in International Investment Law and Dispute Settlement: Developments in 2018, Thierry Berger, Lorenzo Cotula, chapter in Yearbook on International Investment Law & Policy 2018

Farmland in International Investment Law and Dispute Settlement: Developments in 2017, Lorenzo Cotula, Thierry Berger, chapter in Yearbook on International Investment Law & Policy 2017

Article: Law in the natural resource squeeze: ‘land grabbing’, investment treaties and human rights, Lorenzo Cotula, October 2016

Foreign investment, law and sustainable development: a handbook on agriculture and extractive industries, Lorenzo Cotula (2013, second edition 2016), IIED report, Natural Resource Issues series


Was this page useful to you?