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
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’
- Third World Network Features.