Making Win-Win Land Investments in the Developing World

New York, February 13, 2015—With international investors increasingly interested in large-scale land-based investments across the developing world, advocates are working with governments, investors, and local communities to help secure socially responsible agreements that protect human rights, said Kaitlin Y. Cordes ’08, head of the Columbia Center for Sustainable Investment’s (CCSI) work on investments in land and agriculture, and Michael Lufkin of the Landesa Rural Development Institute in a Feb. 2 discussion at Columbia Law School.

Low and middle-income nations contain some of the world’s most desirable land for agriculture and natural resource extraction, but many struggle to afford their citizens the information and agency to reach mutually beneficial agreements with investors. In some instances, investors exploit communities desperate to make a deal, while in others national elites engineer arrangements that exacerbate and entrench existing social divisions.

Amidst fierce debates over access to water and how to feed a rising global population, such investments have become an even more contentious issue.

“These investments are promoted as tools for development or increased food security, and vilified as land grabs that lead to human rights violations such as forced evictions,” Cordes said. “Not all large-scale investments are land grabs. Land grabs are investments that violate human rights, are not based on informed consent, or meet other problematic criteria, but it’s very hard to find investments that can’t be defined as land grabs in some way.”

Lufkin, an attorney and land tenure specialist at Landesa, said that governments frequently lack the capacity to negotiate investments in the interest of their people.

“Often governments don’t have a clear picture of what investment policies should look like and people in agencies don’t know what roles they play, so it creates confusion on the ground,” Lufkin said. “Governments will often use state power of compulsory acquisition to displace people, and then tell investors everything is taken care of. The investors may have the official right to be there but they lack social validity.”

Cordes and Lufkin said human rights legal frameworks help illuminate areas of responsibility between different stakeholders, and that better consultation, model leases, and other tools from groups like CCSI and Landesa are helping investors, governments, and communities reach more mutually beneficial agreements. Looking ahead, they said key challenges to improving large-scale land-based investments include enhancing transparency and better integrating women and youth into decision making.

CCSI and Landesa are offering a joint internship program for one Columbia Law School second-year student interested in working on solutions that protect local communities, governments, and business during the negotiation and implementation of large-scale land-based investments in agriculture. This unique internship position will provide the opportunity to conduct research and support other activities related to land-based agricultural investments in Seattle with Landesa over the summer and with CCSI in fall 2015. Learn more from CCSI.