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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2015

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Land Grabbing and Sustainability

The article by Mulubrhan Balehegn that appears in this issue enables us to signal our enthusiasm for more authors to contribute from a variety of developing and emerging economies over topics of global interest but with huge consequences for local peoples and environments. The theme of land grabbing is particularly apposite. It represents a form of neo-colonialism from nations (and their elites) that are approximately at the same point of the development curve as their 19th-century colonial predecessors were.

Now, however, this practice is taking place in a world of extensive monitoring, environmental awareness, and social turbulence. It is also occurring when powerful and media-savvy global charities such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Oxfam are on the warpath over such practices. Yet land grabbing is escalating with very little political opposition where the usurpation of nature's and the people's commons is taking place. There is a hint in the article that many government officials and resource use regulators are complicit with these practices. But such accusations are difficult to prove, given the vested tangoes between investors, police, landowners (or purported owners), regulators, and politicians.

What is at stake is the theft of the commons. In this 800th anniversary year of the Magna Carta, which enshrined the right of any person to individual and collective property under due process of law, it is noteworthy that no such right pertains to the commons. One of the critical messages of Balehegn's analysis is the removal of the ecological property rights of the former land users, normally villagers, herders, and agriculturalists. This is a blatant piece of ecological injustice that should be dealt with by the regulatory authorities, and in their absence or muted connivance, by the feeble reed of sustainable development goals.

Land grabbing should be firmly in the sights of the emerging sustainable development goals. For here surely is a need to protect existing ways of life and long-established property rights and to support transformations to sustainability. One possible outcome of well-designed land grabbing, introduced by Balehegn, would be to establish linked ways of introducing sustainability to the resulting land use. This might involve the establishment of an independent trust fund to work with investors and the local communities, as well as sustainability scientists, on agreed ways of creating ecological and social value as well as economic gain.

We are a long way off such a prospect as this involves strong governance, well-grounded sustainability science, and excellent negotiation and learning techniques. Surely this could be one objective of sustainable development goals. This would be to create avenues for constructive learning from local people, coupled with an evolving sustainability science of land use and safeguarding resources, and supported by good governance.

So the stage that awaits us is the prospect of enabling the introduction of sustainable development goals to begin the process of kickstarting new forms of learning for sustainability science. This in turn promotes wide understanding of forms of governing which lead to the betterment of wellbeing, resilience, and fair treatment for all.

Balehegn's article reveals just how far away we are from this vision, let alone its manifestation. The kinds of articles we would like to encourage in this magazine are precisely of the kind presented in this case, and would encourage even further analysis of the impediments, especially impediments to governance, and possible ways forward for a workable transition to sustainability, as suggested by sustainability actors working directly in the field.

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