First of all thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today regarding the role of agriculture in sustainable societies, an issue I feel very passionately about. I will focus my intervention on land, because the lack of adequate and secure access to land and natural resources is one of the key structural causes of hunger and poverty in the world.
A global process is underway whereby powerful private and public investors take possession of large tracts of land; these agreements, commonly known as "land grabbing", are having a severe impact on the human rights of the poorest, particularly on their right to adequate food.
As Catholic development organisations, we are extremely concerned about this phenomenon and frequently hear firsthand accounts from the communities with which we work in clamouring for protection. Although a vital economic resource, land is, for humanity, much more than a productive asset: it has also a social, cultural, spiritual and environmental function.
“Land grabbing” is defined as the acquisition of large tracts of land between 10,000 and up to 500,000 hectares through lease, concession or outright purchase. Although numbers vary widely, it is estimated that since 2001 as many as 227 million hectares of land – an area the size of Western Europe – has been sold or leased in developing countries, the majority in the last 2 and half years .
Land grabbing leads to dispossession, compromises people’s livelihoods, their capacities to feed themselves and further intensifies resource degradation. In essence it renders the poorest even more vulnerable and further excludes them as they become disenfranchised from their primary asset.
Drivers of land grabbing include food production for wealthier countries, biofuel production to satisfy our insatiable thirst for energy, large-scale infrastructure projects, carbon credit and other market-based mechanisms, as well as pure speculation on this increasingly scarce resource by banks, pension funds and other financial actors. Rising agricultural commodity prices make the acquisition of land look like an increasingly attractive investment option. In sum, at the heart of this phenomenon lies our growth oriented economic model.
Most of the products produced via land grabbing, whether food, feed or fuel, are exported within the logic of this growth-oriented model underpinned by free trade policies. Transnational companies and their domestic partners are among those reaping the benefits at the expense of the poorest, whose very existence is intrinsically tied to the land they work on, harvest from and are the stewards of.
Land grabbing is also resource grabbing – whether water, soils or biodiversity. There is an erroneous assumption that land grabbing is happening on ‘idle’, ‘marginal’ or ‘uninhabited’ land, but this is fundamentally flawed and not confirmed by the communities we work with.
Here I must note that there is much more to this than meets the eye. Arable land, the proportion of the earth where food can grow, is being depleted at an alarming rate. Today, less than 10% of the planet’s total land area is arable. During the past 40 years nearly one-third of the world's cropland (1.5 billion hectares) has been abandoned because of soil erosion and degradation. We are losing about 75 million hectares to land degradation every year. It takes approximately 500 years to replace 25 millimeters of topsoil and the minimal soil depth for agricultural production is 150 millimeters.
From this perspective, productive fertile soil is an endangered ecosystem and it is our industrial model of production which is causing its demise. Given that about 30 percent of food in industrialized countries is actually wasted, I seriously question the logic and emphasis of this conference´s outcome document on increasing production via intensification models. We know that hunger is not merely an issue of insufficient food; rather it is a problem of socio-political and economic exclusion whereby access is denied to millions.
So what can be done?
Perhaps of most importance is stepping up efforts to secure land rights for local communities. There is also a need to institute redistributive land reform to address the unequal distribution of land which characterizes the context of so many of the world’s poorest people.
Collective land registration and recognition of customary rights are fundamental in this regard. Just compensation schemes should provide a cornerstone of any government policy, and must be integrated in national legislation through appropriate legal frameworks which ensure legal support for local populations as well as protection for those defending land rights
In May 2012 the CFS of the United Nations endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT). This text, which was negotiated among governments here present, seeks to improve tenure governance and regulatory frameworks. These guidelines can strengthen the bargaining position of states when negotiating with private investors and help ensure the protection of local communities
Additionally, and in direct response to this Sustainability Summit, there is a need to question our economic model which incentivises the industrial production that is plundering the resources of the earth and disenfranchising the poorest among her people. Large-scale plantations and industrial agriculture will not feed the world and is resulting in severe irreversible damage. Such agricultural production systems are in fact the problem, and have no place in the future of sustainable societies.
We urge our governments to put a moratorium on land grabbing and seriously implement the VGs. We also urge them to support agricultural systems that enhance soils productivity, build community resilience in the face of climate-change and contribute to the eradication of poverty and hunger. Such systems exit – they are agroecological models, which have been tried and tested the world over. The food crisis was not a one-off event but rather the failure of our agricultural and food production model – it was avoidable and in fact, will not go away unless we get to the root of this problem.
Rather than propagating false solutions which will further compromise the planet’s future capacity to feed itself, we would like to see Rio+20 promote and protect our diminishing resource base and encourage policy makers to secure land for those at risk of dispossession and support them to improve food production in a way that goes beyond sustainability and builds the regenerative capacity of the earth. It is time to give back what we have taken.
Gisele Henriques is CIDSE's Policy and Advocacy Officer for Food, Agriculture and Sustainable Trade. She made the above intervention during a Rio+20 Conference Side Event on 19th June, entitled Agriculture & Sustainable Societies: Food Security, Land & Solidarity , and co-hosted by CIDSE, the Holy See, Caritas Internationalis and Franciscans International.