Land Grabs and Forced Evictions

The phrase “land grab” means the taking of land (by way of purchase, lease, licence or concession) where the taking of land:

  • Involved violations of human rights;
  • Was not based on the principle of free, prior, informed consent (FPIC) of the affected land users;
  • Was not based on a thorough assessment of social, economic, environmental or gender impacts;
  • Was not based on transparent contracts with clear and binding commitments on employment and benefit sharing; or
  • Was not based on democratic planning, independent oversight and meaningful participation

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.

  • Evictions can involve 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.

  • 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.
  • Land grabs can affect forest-dependent communities and those who use land seasonally as pastoralists or for cultural purposes.

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

The problems and impacts associated with land grabs will be different in each case.

Some of the most commonly seen problems and impacts are:

A. Access to Information and a Lack of Transparency

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.

  • This can make it difficult to get the information you need.

Information is key to help the affected community understand:

  • The nature of the project
  • What land will be used and impacted
  • The timescale for the implementation of the project
  • The people involved, with contact details of key contacts
  • The legal 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

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.

Access to information is discussed in detail on the Action4Justice Guide on “Access to Information“.

B. Lack of Consultation with Affected Communities

Following from the lack of information communities have, there is often no consultation or inadequate consultation with those potentially affected.

C. Lack of Free, Prior and Informed Consent

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:

  • Not be forced to consent
  • Be asked before a decision has been made on how the land will be used
  • Have enough information to decide whether to consent

D. 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.

E. Economic and Social Impacts

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.

F. Lack of Adequate Remedies

Displaced or evicted may be given no adequate remedies.

Adequate remedies could involved:

  • Giving affected communities adequate alternative land where they can live, occupy or use on which to live; and/or
  • Compensation for loss of land or use of land

G. Violence or Aggression

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

H. Environmental Impacts

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.

  • This provides information of what the environmental impacts of the land use will be and gives governments/communities information they can use to stop/challenge the use of the land.

Upholding Your Land Rights

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.

A. General Land Rights

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.

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.

B. 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.

  • There have been many important rulings in the Courts in recent years defending indigenous peoples rights to land. 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 have rights to land under the CEDAW convention
  • Children have rights under the CRC convention

Human Rights and Environmental Impacts of Land Grabs

A Land Grab or its consequences may infringe a victim’s right to land or livelihood under National Law of the Constitution.

  • For example, see 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 of Human and Peoples Rights or the American Convention on Human Rights.

Examples in the African Human Rights System

The Enderois and  Ogiek cases in the African Court made important declarations as to the rights of Indigenous Peoples and protected their land from land grabs.


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


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,


Breaches of 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.

Legal action may be based on:

  • The land rights of an individual or community that was on 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.
    • E.g. when the company doesn’t comply with conditions about “benefit sharing” in the licence
  • Use of the land in a way which breaches codes of conduct which corporations or banks have agreed to.
  • 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)

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

For more information, see the A4J “Business and Human Rights Guide“.

Example: Coca Cola Sugar Plantation

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



Challenging a Lease or Licence of the Land

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:

Example: Land Grab Challenge in Tanzania

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:

  • The Grabber did not qualify for the grant
  • The correct procedures were not followed before granting the licence
  • The Conditions of the grant/licence were not complied with by the company
  • The grant did not comply with requirements of a financial institution financing the grab
  • The grant was obtained by corrupt means

ExampleChallenging Corrupt Land Grabs in Tanzania

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.


Practical Tips on Legal Action

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 getting”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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