The phrase “land grab” means the taking of land (by way of purchase, lease, licence or concession) where the taking of land:
Land grabs often occur when land is sold or leased by the state or private owners to an investor who wants to change how the land is used. The people on the land are then displaced or evicted when the new owner takes over the land.
Land grabs affect not only those who live on or farm the land but those who use it.
Communities impacted by a land grab that has happened or is about to happen may be able to use the law to stop the land grab, protect their land rights or get a remedy (e.g. compensation). This section explains how individuals and communities impacted by land grabs may be able to use the law.
If you have been evicted forcibly, for practical guidance see this practical guide to what you can do by Witness
The problems and impacts associated with land grabs will be different in each case.
Some of the most commonly seen problems and impacts are:
Access to information can be a big problem when land grabs happen because affected communities often live in rural or remote communities with low literacy rates.
Information is key to help the affected community understand:
In some cases billboards will be displayed near to land that is proposed to be the subject of a concession, lease or sale. The display of a billboard does not provide adequate information to enable communities to understand the potential impacts of a proposed project or ways in which they can challenge it.
Very often even if a community or individual asks for further information about a project, local authorities and companies will be very unwilling to provide adequate information.
Access to information is discussed in detail on the Action4Justice Guide on “Access to Information“.
Following from the lack of information communities have, there is often no consultation or inadequate consultation with those potentially affected.
Even where there is consultation, this may not be meaningful. The views of existing occupiers may be ignored. There may be no consent given to the proposed change of use or occupation of the land. Consent may be obtained but only by threats or false information or promises.
The key is that communities give free, prior and informed consent. This means communities must:
Land may be “grabbed” by the government or local or foreign investors. Those who occupied the land or used it may be displaced or evicted or prevented from using it. Evictions may be forced or accompanied by violence or threats.
Those displaced will often lack housing or any sort of security of where to live, as well suffering loss of livelihood and education and health services.
Impacts wider than just on the land grabbed. Access to water and to other land an community resources may be affected
The economic and social impact on a community must be assessed before land is taken.
Displaced or evicted may be given no adequate remedies.
Adequate remedies could involved:
Violence can be directed against both people and property (including animals).
Land which is grabbed may be used in such a way to damage the environment.
An environmental impact assessment must be completed before land is used in a way that could damage the environment.
The pre-existing rights of the individual or community to the land may provide the basis for challenging a land grab. These could be ownership or use rights and based on customary law or national laws.
Even if an individual or community has a legally recognised right to own, occupy or use land, it does not necessarily offer a guarantee of protection from land grabs.
BUT in many cases, demonstrating that you have a legally recognised land right will help you challenge a land grab.
The frameworks for recognising different kinds of land rights vary country to country. For more information, see the sections on:
Whether or not an individual or a community has a legally recognised right to occupy or use land will depend on the national system of individual and communal land ownership and the protection offered for those who use land for different purposes.
Practical Tip: Register Your Land
Formalising your land rights by applying for registration of ownership of land can offer some protection for communities and individuals who fear land grabs.
However, registration processes can also be used by those seeking to take land from communities and individuals.
Communities and individuals thinking about registering land rights or concerned about rights being registered by others over their land should seek local legal advice.
Even where an individual or a community has no formally registered rights to own or occupy land, they may be able to rely on protection under customary law.
In some countries it is not possible for individuals or communities to own land (for example in countries where all land is owned by the state) and it may also not be possible for them to obtain formal recognition of land use rights.
In these circumstances other forms of evidence of long-term occupation and use of, and reliance on, the land can be used to argue that land rights should be recognised.
Certain groups of people may have particular rights to use or occupy land even if these rights have never been formally recognised by the state or customary law.
A Land Grab or its consequences may infringe a victim’s right to land or livelihood under National Law of the Constitution.
Examples in the African Human Rights System
A Land Grab may breach the standards of conduct set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or involve breach by a state of the Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations. Although not enforceable law, these may provide important bases for opposing a Land Grab.
Example: Extraterritorial Human Rights Obligations
in 2012 the Human Rights Committee held that Germany was in breach of its extra territorial obligations to protect human rights because of the activities in Uganda of a subsidiary of the German Neumann Kaffee Group, in the light of allegations that villager had been evicted at gunpoint to make way for a coffee plantation,
The activities of the Grabber may be a legal wrong in itself, especially if accompanied by violence, damage or threats.
Legal action may be based on:
The actions may constitute breach of codes or conduct, or of voluntary standards which the grabber or an associated company has signed up to or claims to adhere to:
For more information, see the A4J “Business and Human Rights Guide“.
Coca Cola Cambodia withdrew from involvement in a sugar plantation after complaints over its conduct over many years.
Most land grabs occur after the grabber has been granted a lease or concession or licence to use the land in a particular way.
You may be able to challenge this in the Courts or by complaints under other mechanisms.
For example a challenge may be possible where the Land was not of a category or type which could be the subject of the lease or concession:
The Tanzanian government sought to acquire land compulsorily for the use of American Embassy under powers allowing them to do so for “public purposes”. This was challenged in court and it was held that the acquisition was not valid as this was not a public purpose.
Licences can also be challenged when:
In Loliondo, Tanzania, a hunting reserve was established for use of the Dubai royal family.
After a long battle by pastoralists and other local people whose use of the land was stopped or restricted, the concessions and licences were terminated on the basis that they had been obtained corruptly.
If you are thinking of taking legal action consult the “Going to Court” section of this website. Particular issues may include