The issue of land in the light of sustainable development diplomacy (SDD)

When meeting Bill Moomaw a couple of months ago, I had the chance to briefly discuss with him my main interests in the realm of the SDD track. When I told him that I was interested in issues of international land policy and governance he said that the issue of land has been at the heart of diplomacy since the emergence of this field of study. Interestingly enough, land is rarely mentioned in SDD papers and is often only a minor subject in the many discussions with teachers and fellow students on the topic of sustainable development; this is my rationale for writing this blogpost. I will try to shed some light on the link between issues of land and the sustainable development agenda, and argue that a multi-stakeholder approach is the key to inclusive and sustainable use of land resources. I will focus on the region of Africa, as it is my main interest area and an excellent example of SDD in practice.

Looking at development efforts in Africa (and the rest of the world) the issue of land, along with water, has become extremely urgent. Poor management of land resources and the consequences for people in developing countries have also been, most recently, linked to the migration and refugee crisis, thus catching the attention of the heads of state of developed countries that are feverishly looking for a solution to limit the effects of migration and refugees on their respective societies.

Not surprisingly, this problem recalls typical characteristics of global capitalism. After the financial crisis in 2008, which for many countries ultimately resulted in a serious food crisis, land has become an ever more valuable resource. Countries with capital are aiming to ensure food autonomy, however land has become a scarce resource in the “first world”, which is why countries and private investors are increasingly looking at land based resources in developing countries, where unclear land rights offer a favourable environment for investment.

For many years now, as the issues surrounding  land grabbing and large-scale land acquisitions have  gained international exposure,  = policymakers, diplomats, private and non-governmental actors have developed  initiatives and frameworks that enable development not only for investors but also for the marginalized people, such as smallholder farmers and women among others. The land grab debate is typically characterized by two camps; one the one hand there are private investors and governments that see potential for large-scale investment deals and argue that increased production leads to trickle-down effects (jobs, improved infrastructure, higher yield output) and therefore benefits the poor and vulnerable while at the same time it improves a country´s overall economic situation and guarantees high returns to the investor. On the other hand there are international civil society organisations, environmental groups as well as locally organised protest groups that question those trickle-down effects and argue that the local communities would be the ones that have the most to lose.

The opponents of large scale land acquisitions argue that in many cases host communities are not compensated appropriately in terms of the actual value of their land. Secondly the lessons learned from many large scale investments are that small holder farmers are either driven into unemployment or working for a large-scale agricultural farm which regularly “offer” working environments prone to human rights violations. [1] Moreover, unfortunately, in several cases the leaders of the host communities and defenders of their cause that are courageous enough to speak out on behalf of the affected people, are victims of severe crimes like torture and even assassinations. However, the worst thing about these land acquisitions are probably that farmers in developing countries are usually relying on farming for subsistence, which means that if one were to take their land away, the consequence would be an increase of individual and communal poverty.

Questions of land use are also undoubtedly linked to other resources; changes in land use can have enormous impact on both the environment and the social context of the affected communities. Take water for example; often land deals are signed without defining how much water the new “owner” may use for irrigation. The consumption of an irrigation system for a large-scale agricultural plantation can have irreversible impacts on aquifers which thousands of people may be dependent on. A human-induced change of flora and fauna may have wide-ranging consequences not only for local and regional ecosystems but also impact the lifestyles of communities that have pursued certain activities for generations.


I hope that through this first part of this article, I have clearly illustrated the issue at stake. If one is in favour of sustainable development as a concept, and more importantly, as the global agenda beyond 2015; one needs to be heavily irritated by shady land deals, of which there are unfortunately countless examples all over the globe.

In the second part I want to raise ideas of how the concept of SDD could help to shed some light on finding solutions to deal with the deteriorating effects of large-scale land acquisitions. SDD is defined as ‘a process of global policy-making with the aim to produce a guiding framework for a range of policy instruments, financing mechanisms, organizations, rules, procedures, negotiations and norms that regulate the processes of sustainable development’.[2] In other words, it describes the governance of sustainable development. I hope that I made evident in the introduction of this article, how land and the different kind of land use systems are at the heart of the concept of sustainable development. Therefore, I argue, that the various governance arrangements in respect to continental and global land governance should be of great interests for those looking to use SDD as a framework to explain current developments in this particular field.

SDD not only offers a theoretical framework to support an empirical assessment of existing land governance arrangements, but can also be used as a normative concept to offer recommendations on how to improve current tools, in order to reach sustainable development outcomes for all stakeholders and most importantly marginalized groups.

If we take the example of Africa for instance, there are several existing governance regimes that from an analytical perspective can be streamlined into a regime complex. Africa as a region is very important in the land grab debate as about 70% of all land deals are signed for land in Africa.[3]

To address the growing problem of large-scale land deals in Africa,  multilateral organisations, governments, national and international investors and civil society organisations have come up with several soft law arrangements; different forms of guidelines and principles to define best practices in the various operative steps that can be summarized under large-scale land-based investments. As those who deal with the governance of different fields of sustainable development know, soft laws or non-binding agreements are the most likely option to solve the common denominator problem and therefore are the preferred way forward for most negotiators that are unwilling to accept any type of restriction imposed by a binding agreement. To illustrate this with an example; Saudi Arabia – a net purchaser of  land like the Netherlands and Singapore with limited agricultural land[4] –   has no interest in a binding agreement that would make land acquisitions more difficult or even impossible in some areas. However, with international civil society organisations demanding  protection of the interest of marginalized people compromises have been made establishing “guidelines”; tools and mechanisms that if carried out properly ideally create a win-win situation, meaning protecting the interest of the investor as well as of the local people concerned by the land deal.

It is not given that non-binding agreements do not have an impact!

In the globalized world we are living in, actors cannot operate anonymously. Take the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT) developed by the Committee of World Food Security (CFS) for instance; these guidelines as the name says it are voluntary and non legally binding. They were developed in a long process that included negotiations not only with all the FAO member states, but also with investors, multilateral development agencies, and civil society organisations, to make sure that all interests are included in those guidelines. Those guidelines currently form one of the most important component of land governance at the continental level, not only in Africa, but all over the world. They are endorsed by major donor countries and therefore many of the projects financed by those countries are aiming at implementing the guidelines at regional, national and local levels. I won´t bore you with the details, but for those interested you should definitely take a look; it is an impressive account of global governance in the era of sustainable development. The Voluntary Guidelines are one of many principles/guidelines developed by international actors to improve governance of land. International CSOs usually defend the position that those governance arrangements are weak tools, and argue for a strengthening of the bundle of rights of marginalized people. I think looking at the issue at stake through an SDD lens makes a lot of sense, and I hope that through this blogpost I managed to shed some lights at those various interlinkages demonstrating how land is a topic which touches upon the core of SDD and should therefore be further studied in this context by scholars and practitioners alike.

[1] (Stephens, 2011, p. 2)

[2] (Papa & Gleason, 2012, p. 916)

[3] (Deininger & Byerlee (2011) as quoted in Ismar, 2013, p. 712)


Link to picture:

Ismar, J. (2013). How to govern the global rush for land and water? In T. Allan, M. Keulertz, S. Sojamo, & J. Warner (Eds.), Handbook of Land and Water Grabs in Africa. London & New York: Routledge.

Papa, M., & Gleason, N. W. (2012). Major emerging power ins sustainable development diplomacy: Assessing their leadership potential. Global Environmental Change, 22, 915-924.

Stephens, P. (2011). The Global Land Grab: An analysis of extant governance institutions. International Affairs Review, XX(1).

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