Understanding growing pressures on land: 'land grabbing' and beyond


Land is central to livelihoods, culture and identity for millions of people across the developing world. But there is growing concern that people's connection to their land is being undermined, due to large-scale land deals for agricultural investments in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

A community protests against illegal land development in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia (Photo: World Resources Institute via Flickr)

Changing world food and commodity prices as well as government concerns about longer term national food and energy security have fostered a recent wave of large-scale land deals for agribusiness investments.

Dubbed 'land grabs' in the media, land-based investments have kindled much international debate.

Some commentators have welcomed this trend as a bearer of new livelihood opportunities in lower-income countries. Others have raised concerns about negative social impacts, including loss of local rights to land, water and other natural resources; threats to local food security; and the risk that large-scale investments marginalise small-scale farmers. Yet others have pointed to models of agricultural investment that include local farmers.

Pressures on land have also been increasing as a result of local-level processes. Demographic growth and socioeconomic transformations are increasing land values in many parts of the world.

As competition for high-value land increases, a transformation in customary systems is under way. These processes are accompanied by diverging trends towards growing fragmentation and concentration in landholdings, and towards greater social differentiation in rural societies.

These rapid developments create a need for inclusive, informed debate on models of and pathways to agricultural development, the role of different types of investments in agriculture including investment by small-scale farmers, and ways to secure the land rights of rural people in the face of growing competition.

What is IIED doing?

To support such debate, IIED has collaborated with international institutions, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and with a wide range of partners in Africa and Asia, to generate evidence on pressures on land and models of agricultural investment and their implications for rural citizens.


Land, Property and Sovereignty in International Law, Lorenzo Cotula (2017), Cardozo Journal of International and Comparative Law

International Soft-Law Instruments and Global Resource Governance: Reflections on the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, Lorenzo Cotula (2017), Law, Environment and Development (LEAD) Journal

Trends in global land use investment: implications for legal empowerment, Lorenzo Cotula, Thierry Berger (2017), IIED Research report

Understanding changing land access and use by the rural poor in Ghana, John T. Bugri, Eric Yeboah (2017), IIED 

Understanding changing land issues for the rural poor in Mozambique, Eléusio Filipe, Simon Norfolk (2017), IIED

Understanding changing land access and use by the rural poor in Senegal Aminata Niang, Ndèye Fatou Sarr, Ibrahima Hathie, Ndèye Coumba Diouf, Cheikh Oumar Ba, Ibrahima Ka, Marie Gagné (2017), IIED

Understanding changing land access issues for the rural poor in Uganda, Godber Tumushabe, Alex Tatwangire (2017), IIED

Africa’s farmland in changing hands: A review of literature and case studies from sub-Saharan Africa, Catriona Knapman, Laura Silici, Lorenzo Cotula, James Mayers (2017), IIED

Catching up with the fast pace of land access change in Uganda, Godber Tumushabe, Alex Tatwangire, James Mayers (2017), IIED Briefing paper.

Shifts in the landscape: increased pressure on rural land and livelihoods in Ghana, John T. Bugri, Eric Yeboah, Catriona Knapman (2017), IIED Briefing paper.

Changing landscapes in Mozambique: why pro-poor land policy matters, Eléusio Filipe, Simon Norfolk (2017), IIED Briefing paper,  English and Portuguese.

Land access for Senegal’s small producers under threat, Aminata Niang, Catriona Knapman (2017), IIED Briefing paper, English and French.

Access to farmland gets quick and dirty in sub-Saharan Africa, James Mayers, Catriona Knapman, Laura Silici, Lorenzo Cotula (2017), IIED Briefing paper, English, French and Portuguese.

Agro-industrial investments in Cameroon: Large-scale land acquisitions since 2005, Samuel Nguiffo and Michelle Sonkoue Watio (2015), IIED Land, Investment and Rights series | en français

Additional resources

Large-scale land deals in Ethiopia: Scale, trends, features and outcomes to date, James Keeley, Wondwosen Michago Seide, Abdurehman Eid and Admasu Lokaley Kidewa (2014), IIED

Accountability in Africa's land rush: what role for legal empowerment, Emily Polack, Lorenzo Cotula and Muriel Côte (2013) IIED and IDRC, Land, Investment and Rights series | en français

The global land rush: securing a better deal for women, Emily Polack (2013), IIED Briefing paper

Long-term outcomes of agricultural investments: lessons from Zambia, Fison Mujenja and Charlotte Wonani (2012), IIED Land Investment and Rights series

Agricultural investments and land acquisitions in Mali: context, trends and case studies, Moussa Djiré, with Amadou Keita and Alfousseyni Diawara (2013), IIED Land Investment and Rights series | en français

Joint ventures in agriculture: lessons from land reform projects in South Africa, Edward Lahiff, Nerhene Davis and Tshililo Manenzhe (2012), IIED Land Investment and Rights series | en français

Community-investor business models: lessons from the oil palm sector in East Malaysia, Fadzilah Majid Cooke, Sumei Toh and Justine Vaz (2011), IIED, Land Investment and Rights series | en français

The global land rush: what the evidence reveals about scale and geography, Lorenzo Cotula and Emily Polack (2012), IIED Briefing paper

Agricultural land acquisitions: a lens on Southeast Asia, Emily Polack (2012), IIED Briefing paper

Farms and funds: investment funds in the global land rush, Abbi Buxton, Mark Campanale and Lorenzo Cotula (2012), IIED Briefing paper

Biomass energy: another driver of land acquisitions? Lorenzo Cotula, Lynn Finnegan and Duncan Macqueen (2011), IIED Briefing paper

Are land deals driving 'water grabs'?, Jamie Skinner and Lorenzo Cotula (2011), IIED Briefing paper

Land deals in Africa: what is in the contracts?, Lorenzo Cotula (2011) IIED Land, investment and rights series | en français

Why it makes more sense to invest in farmers than in farmland, Lorenzo Cotula (2010), IIED Sustainable development opinion papers

Alternatives to land acquisitions: agricultural investment and collaborative business models, Lorenzo Cotula and Rebeca Leonard (2010), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Making the most of agricultural investment: a survey of business models that provide opportunities for smallholders, Lorenzo Cotula and Sonja Vermeulen (2010), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa, Lorenzo Cotula, Sonja Vermeulen, Rebeca Leonard and James Keeley (2009), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Biofuels, land access and rural livelihoods in Mozambique, Isilda Nhantumbo and Alda Salomão (2010), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Biofuels, land access and rural livelihoods in Tanzania, Emmanuel Sulle and Fred Nelson (2009), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people's access to land, Lorenzo Cotula, Nat Dyer and Sonja Vermeulen (2008), IIED

Further reading

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

Addressing 'legacy' land issues in agribusiness investments, Lorenzo Cotula, Thierry Berger and Philippine Sutz (2016), LEGEND analytical paper

LEGEND Land Policy Bulletin: issue 1. Why land governance? (2015), LEGEND analytical paper

Addressing the human rights impacts of 'land grabbing', Lorenzo Cotula (2014) European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights

Testing claims about large land deals in Africa: findings from a multi-country study (PDF), article in the Journal of Development Studies, Taylor and Francis Group

The great African land grab? Agricultural investments and the global food system, Lorenzo Cotula (2013), Zed books

The international political economy of the global land rush: a critical appraisal of trends, scale, geography and drivers, Lorenzo Cotula (2012), article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, Taylor and Francis Group

'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.