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Land grabs and forced evictions

The recent wave of investment in land is occurring at an unprecedented pace, driven by population growth, food security concerns, biofuels policies and investor speculation. Whilst responsible investment plays a vital role in development and poverty reduction, too often large-scale investments in land result in dispossession, violation of human rights and impairment of livelihoods.  The term “land grab” is used to refer to a land acquisition (by way of purchase, lease, licence or concession) that is one of more of the following:

      • in violation of human rights, particularly the equal rights of women;
      • not based on the principle of free, prior, informed consent (FPIC) of the affected land users;
      • not based on a thorough assessment of (or in disregard of) social, economic, environmental or gender impacts;
      • not based on transparent contracts with clear and binding commitments on employment and benefit sharing; or
      • not based on democratic planning, independent oversight and meaningful participation (Definition agreed by the International Land Coalition in its Tirana Declaration, 27 May 2011 (adopted by Oxfam as a member of ILC)).

Land grabs often occur when land is sold or leased by the state or private owners to an investor who wants to change its use although it is often not initially clear to affected communities what the intended new use of the land is. Affected land is often occupied by people who use it for farming and to live on; they are displaced or evicted when the new owner or investor fences off the land or changes the use. Evictions may be accompanied by actual or threatened harassment or violence and frequently displaced people may have nowhere (or nowhere adequate) to go. When compensation is provided, it is often inadequate.

Land grabs affect not only those who live on or farm the land but those who use it, for example forest-dependent communities and those who use land seasonally as pastoralists or for cultural purposes.

      • Communities negatively impacted by a land acquisition that has happened or is about to happen may be able to use the law to stop the land grab happening, to protect and preserve their rights to occupy or use the land or to obtain remedies such as suitable alternative land or adequate compensation.
      • While farmland is most commonly affected by large scale agribusiness development (such as palm oil, sugar or soy plantations), non-farmland can also be impacted by major infrastructure projects, special economic zones and projects focussed on natural resource extraction, exploitation and even protection such as mining, logging, hydroelectricity and the creation of protected areas.

Legal action may be based on:

  • The pre-existing rights of the individual or community to the land. These could be ownership or use rights and based on customary law or national laws.
  • Human rights impacts on the individual or community removed from or no longer able to use the land.
  • Challenges to the procedure by which the land is acquired, for example a failure to adequately consult and obtain consent from impacted communities, the use of threats or violence, a failure to assess impacts or to justify the dispossession in line with national law.
  • Breaches of conditions on the land acquisition or unlawful uses of the land such as using the land for a purpose other than was envisaged in the lease, purchase or concession.
  • Use of the land in a way which breaches codes of conduct which corporations or banks have agreed to
  • 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

The problems and impacts associated with land grabs will be different in each case. Some of the most commonly seen problems and impacts are:

(i) Access to information and a lack of transparency

Access to information is discussed in detail at [link to section of website].

In relation to land grabs access to information can be a particular problem because affected communities are very often rural or remote communities with low literacy rates.

In order to understand what project is planned and what the potential impacts of that will be on the local population, the local community need to be provided with information about:

  • The nature of the project
  • The intended footprint (how much land will be used/affected and how) ?
  • The timescale for the implementation of the project
  • The people involved, with contact details of key contacts
  • The basis on which any land concession or grant is made
  • The proposals for consultation
  • Whether is it intended that there will be any displacement
  • If so what alternative land (use) is to be offered
  • The basis and amount of compensation to be paid

While 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. Often they are not even in a language which can be read or understood by local residents.

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.

(ii) A lack of consultation with those affected

Following from this, there is often no consultation or inadequate consultation with those potentially affected

(iii) A lack of valid consent from those 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

(iv) Displacement and forced evictions

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

(v) Economic and social impacts e.g. impacts on livelihood, health and education

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.

(vi) Lack of adequate remedy: alternative land and compensation

Displaced or evicted may be given no, or no adequate alternative land on which to live, and no compensation for loss of land or use of land

(vii) Violence or aggression.

Violence can be directed against both people and property (including animals).

(viii) Environmental impacts

Land which is grabbed may be used in such a way to damage the environment

(ix) Inappropriate new land use

(x) Impacts on access to resources

Impacts wider than just on the land grabbed. Access to water and to other land an community resources may be affected

(xi) Difficulty in finding a court, tribunal or commission which will give an effective remedy


Upholding rights to or over land

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.

General rights in or to the land:

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 (for example governments can in some cases justify depriving people of land rights for projects of public benefit or national importance). However, in many cases, demonstrating a legally recognised land right will significantly improve outcomes for individuals and communities.

The frameworks for recognising different kinds of land rights vary country to country [link to land rights/registration section]. 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.


Tip: In some cases, formalising land rights, for example 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 to register rights to their land. 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. See section on practical tips below.

Rights of Specific People

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.

  • Indigenous People There have been many important rulings in the Courts in recent years. Apart from the Rulings in the Regional Courts referred to under Human Rights below, there have been important rulings in the High Court of Belize, the Supreme Court of India and the Constitutional Courts of Ecuador, Colombia and Indonesia
  • Women – who have rights under the CEDAW convention
  • Children – who have rights under the CRC convention
  • Forest Peoples. Forest dwellers are sometime but not always indigenous peoples. For more information on ways of protecting, see the resources of the Forest People’s Programme.
  • Pastoralists or Nomads



Human rights and environmental impacts of the land grab

A Land Grab or its consequences may infringe a victim’s right to land or livelihood under National Law of the Constitution, for example under  Article  24(1) of  the Tanzania Constitution


A Land Grab may infringe human rights of victims which arise under regional Law such as the African Charter or the American Convention

Examples: The Enderois and  Ogiek cases in the African Court made important declarations as to the rights of Indigenous Peoples


Example:  Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction v Republic of Sudan


A Land Grab may infringe human rights of victims which arise under International Human Rights Instruments such as the UNDHR and the ESCR

Tip: Relying on Regional or International Human Rights in a court is usually a last resort.  This is because it requires a victim to “exhaust” all domestic remedies first and usually takes a very long time

A Land Grab may breach the standards of conduct set out in the Ruggie Business and Human Rights principles or involve breach by a state of the Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations. Even if not enforceable  law, these may provide important bases for opposing a Land Grab.

Example: 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,


Wrongs or breaches of the law committed by the Grabber

The activities of the Grabber may be a legal wrong in itself, especially if accompanied by violence, damage or threats.

This may be a wrong by the person grabbing or acquiring the land, or by those acting on his behalf (security guards or paramilitary groups).

They may commit civil wrongs such as trespass or assault

They may be guilty of crimes

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

  • The UN Global Compact
  • The Equator Principles
  • Extractive Industry Initiatives
  • FAO Committee on Food Security Voluntary Guidelines

Example: Coca Cola Cambodia withdrew from involvement in a sugar plantation after complaints over its conduct over many years: see



Appropriate procedure for removing land rights and granting new land acquisition

Most land grabs occur after the grabber has been granted a lease or concession or licence to use the land in a particular way. This may be capable of challenge, in the Courts or by complaints under other mechanisms [examples]. 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


Example: 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  (Attorney- General v Sisi Enterprises [2006] TLR 9) .

  • The Grabber did not qualify for the grant.
  • The correct procedures were not followed
  • The Conditions of the grant were not complied with
  • The grant did not comply with requirements of a financial institution financing the grab
  • The grant was obtained by corrupt means [cross refer to corruption and add more examples].

Example: In Loliondo inTanzania 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.

  • Note that foreign investors whose land grants are revoked may seek damages or other relief against the state under Bilateral Treaties, as in ICSID case ARB/17/33 (2017) brought by a Swedish investor against Tanzania, after a land grant for sugar cane





Conditions of the lease / concession and challenges based on new land use

The new use of the land may be capable of challenge. For example

  • It may entail potential infringements of national law e.g. emissions standards, breaches of land use class, penalties if land is left vacant (this can result in a concession being invalid after a set period elapses)
  • It may breach requirements for “benefit sharing” and conditions of benefit sharing attached to grants of land

The Use of Land by the Grabber may be something that can be relied upon. It is important to look not only at the Land Grabber themselves but associated or parent companies, trade associations that they belong to, and institutions providing finance. The following are examples of voluntary or similar codes or guidelines

  • Palm Oil Roundtable/Soy Moratorium/ Cerrado Manifesto, Bonsucro (sugar)
  • IFI Investor standards (World Bank, IFC, EIB, ADB)
  • Certification bodies Ethical Trading Initiative, Fairtrade labelling, Forest Stewardship
  • OECD principles may be breached
  • Effect on wildlife  or breach of Endangered Species legislation
  • Infringement of park/reserve status
  • Logging or other use contrary to FLEGT or fairtrade/supply chain schemes
  • Action based on illegal use of fruits of the grabbed land – the ultimate purchaser may have action brought against them
  • Abuse of UNFCC CDM/REDD+ mechanisms and the threat of decertification
  • Statements in company’s own CSR policies/on website or PR in material on responsibility

You may be able to find useful information both about conduct of companies and about the standards they purport to adhere on websites such as  Bankwatch/IFI-watch or BHRRC



Practical Tips on legal action about land

If  you are thinking of taking legal action consult the “Going to Court” section of this website. Particular issues  may include

  • Finding an appropriate tribunal or court (this is a specialist land subject). Land disputes may have to be brought before special tribunals or cadastral commissions. Sometimes tribunals which exist in theory do not function in practice
  • Looking abroad. You may be able to take action, with specialist help, against associated or parents companies of the Grabber  (see here)
  • Getting help. Going to court is often complex and needs special assistances from lawyers or paralegals. See here for suggestions
  • Gathering evidence  (See Resource: Tips and Guidance on Gathering Evidence . If you bring a case before a court of tribunal evidence will be necessary . This may be on
    • Your rights such as Title/tenure/right of occupation of the land
    • What happened in the Grab (forced eviction violence etc)
    • Who is responsible – those grabbing or higher of the chain
  • You may also need evidence on things that you cannot find our directly such as the procedure used to make a land grant. You may be able to compel the Grabber to give this information (see Rights to  Information)
  • Forming a group for safety and “standing
  • Trying to ensure protection against violence and arrest (see here). Often those who resist land grabbers are subject to violence and threats. They may also be arrested for protesting or for trespassing on their own land.
  • Combining legal action with a campaign
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