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Land grabs, the ‘WEL nexus’, and a lot of questions


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On the 18th and 19th May, ECDPM hosted the partners currently engaged in formulating the European Development Report 2012. This was a follow-up to previous meetings in London and Brussels and aimed at furthering discussions on the structure and content of the report among whilst also bringing in experts on the topics relating to the title of the report: “Effective Natural Resource Management for Inclusive and Sustainable Growth in the Context of Scarcity and Climate Change”.

While this is a broad theme for one report and clearly needs a focal topic and some definitions (not least of natural resources, sustainable growth and inclusive growth), previous discussions have led the team to focus the report content on the “Water-Energy-Land (WEL) Nexus”. Although this does narrow the field for examination somewhat, the discussions ranged over a wide number of areas, reflecting to some degree the expertise of the participants present: What about conflict, which is strongly related to land ownership and access? To what degree will the WEL nexus serve as the context or as a framework of analysis, or more as an example for analysing resource management issues in general? Is it possible to use this as a tool for analysis? What will be truly ‘European’ about the thinking put forward into the report, and how should the report aim to be relevant to policy makers across the globe? While providing interesting discussion, it also highlighted the challenge the writers will face in ensuring that all relevant points get coverage while avoiding a simple overview of natural resource management issues which does not go into any depth.

“Land-grabs” from a political economy perspective

One way put forward to avoid that pitfall is to use the spate of international “land-grabs” which have featured so much in the recent media as a point of departure. Among other things, these provide an example of investments led by a sense of scarcity at the international level while bringing to the fore a range of environmental, economic and governance issues affecting a whole range of actors from international investors, to central governments, national investors, local governments, local collective groups, and individual needs and desires. Indeed, they highlight the trade-off developing country governments face between promoting inward investment for economic growth, and maintaining some degree of national and local sovereignty over land while also satisfying the needs of the population at a number of levels.

One way of looking at the issues, discussed during the workshop, is through the lens of political economy. Such an approach looks at the incentives facing each of the affected parties, in particular the rents available, the historical context, the current trajectory of actors in relation to land access and land-use, the formal and informal institutions they face, and the room for manoeuvre in affecting changes. It is important to also take into account the wide heterogeneity of actors seemingly from the same group. Government ministries can act in very different interests; the private sector includes international firms, large national firms, SMEs, micro-firms, importers, exporters, manufacturers, traders etc, all facing different incentives and motivated by different interests. A further important point raised was that the rising number of land deals can be considered a direct consequence of the policies of land deregulation and liberalisation promoted by international donor countries over recent decades. Further insights were provided from China. Despite a common perception that they may “have the answers”, very similar questions are being faced there regarding how best to combine public and private ownership and deal with the investment-protection trade-off.

Notwithstanding the complexity brought by the range of these questions, further questions still remain as to whether or not these “land-grabs” are really as widespread and as important as we might think from the press. If indeed inclusive growth is to be dealt with in the report, then employment and incomes might also be discussed more concretely than in the discussions held, and may require different points of departure for analysis – the “land-grab” issue clearly involves questions of the impact on employment, but in many cases discussions revolve around minimising the degree of forced evictions and destabilising livelihoods rather than actively promoting employment.

Despite the inherent difficulties of systematising such a range of questions and ideas, and the large number of remaining questions, there was some new clarity by the end of the discussions. There was broad agreement that, at least in the case of land, there needs to be a separation between looking at land ownership, and land use. While ownership relates to issues of tutelage, the relevance of formal property-rights versus informal systems establishing ownership, property rights protection, international versus national versus local government claims to land, and land conflicts; land-use issues relate more to environmental sustainability, the relation with water and energy use, the impact on local and global food production, and competing uses for land, from agriculture to tourism, conservation, urbanisation, and industrial use, all of which have different implications for the WEL nexus, and for sustainable and inclusive growth.

The consultation was aimed at provoking discussions and gathering ideas and from that point of view the meeting was a success. Now the challenge is to bring new focus to produce a report which shows breadth of understanding and relevance but also provides new innovations and insights.

Bruce Byiers is Policy Officer Political Economy of Reforms and Development at ECDPM.

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European external affairsTrade, investment and financePolitical economy analysisEurope