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Sunday, 3 February 2013





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Conflicts over usable soil are intensifying

As the demand for food is growing, conflicts over usable soil are intensifying. Marginalised communities and indigenous people's often lose out. There is more at stake than tidy legal rules and rational economic interests.

In late October, a group of Cambodian farmers filed a complaint with the US government against American Sugar Refining ASR, best known for its Domino Sugar brand. The farmers claim they were evicted six years ago by their own government, which gave their land to two Asian companies and a local politician, who used it to grow and manufacture sugar that is being sold to ASR.

Despite established citizens’ rights to the land, abuses like this are common in Cambodia and other developing countries, says David Pred of Inclusive Development International (IDI), an advocacy group.

Projects to exploit natural resources often gravitate to countries where property rights are opaque and people are easily intimidated by powerful lobbies or even their own governments. “This is the geography of evasion,” Pred said during the Global Soil Week in Berlin in late November. It was organised by the Potsdam-based Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies IASS and supported by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation, the EU and UN agencies.

Increasingly scarce resource

Land is a limited and non-renewable resource. Due to erosion, pollution and urbanisation, fertile land is shrinking. Moreover “land grabbing”, the large-scale purchase of land by foreign buyers, is limiting local communities’ access to vital resources. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation FAO, the share of usable cropland per human being fell from 0.45 hectare to 0.25 hectare in the past 50 years. The rising demand for food, however, is increasing demand for fertile soil. Nonetheless, soil and social aspects of how it is used have garnered little global public awareness, compared with topics such as water conservation.

Many countries adopted UN conventions and guidelines to establish and secure land tenure in recent years.

Nonetheless, people on the fringes of society are still being denied access to resources they rightfully consider their own. They are excluded from policy making, development experts say. Organisations such as IDI point out that abuse of power is not restricted to countries where the rule of law is feeble. Citizens’ uncertainty about their own land rights is a well-documented issue in the rural areas of many democracies, such as India and Brazil.

Even mandatory consultation processes, in which local authorities are required to involve with all interested parties, do not always help, says IDI expert Pred. For obvious reasons, things tend to be even worse in countries under authoritarian rule.

Complicated situations, moreover, arise in places where, “nobody knows who possesses the land, and it is hard to speak of governance at all,” says Sergio Sauer of the Universidade de Brasilia.

In many places, government-sanctioned land-grabs or general speculation are driving up property prices so local farmers can no longer afford rents.

Marginalised people such as indigenous communities often have little chance in the face of global competition for access to farmland, forests, mineral deposits, or even water.The Cambodian villagers of Chuuk, Chikor, and Trapeng Kendal say some 450 families were forced from their homes and their farming livelihood to make way for sugar production by the Thai sugar maker Khon Kaen Sugar, the Taiwanese food company Ve Wong and a Cambodian politician.This practice has led to the displacement and impoverishment of more than 12,000 people in Cambodia, the IDI said.

In another highly publicised case, an indigenous Brazilian group has been battling a powerful rural lobby group – comprising of local politicians and ranch owners – over access to the Guarani tribes’ ancestral lands.

- Third World Network Features.



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