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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:
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.
Legal action may be based on:
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:
(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:
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
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.
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
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,
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
Example: Coca Cola Cambodia withdrew from involvement in a sugar plantation after complaints over its conduct over many years: see
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
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  TLR 9) .
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.
The new use of the land may be capable of challenge. For example
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
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
If you are thinking of taking legal action consult the “Going to Court” section of this website. Particular issues may include