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Shining a light on land deals: sharing lessons for transparency

Written by Anna Locke, Giles Henley, Andrew Norton

The ‘3Ts’ of the G8 summit – tax, trade and transparency – are interlinked, especially through the axis between transparency and tax, as Kevin Watkins outlines.  Discussions on tax are bringing to light the hidden worlds of corporate tax avoidance and tax evasion by individuals, whereas – led by the UK – the transparency agenda is focusing on land, open data and extractives.

There has been an exponential increase in the rate of acquisition of land for commercial purposes since 2008, particularly in certain African countries. In a context where many African countries have struggled for years to attract significant and sustained investment in agriculture, this increased interest is hoped to bring many benefits. However, the increase in large-scale land acquisition has sparked concerns about outcomes – namely, the level of benefits and risks generated, and their distribution – as well as the impact on tenure security of existing land-rights holders.

Despite efforts by Land Matrix to collect and publish information on land deals, there is a dearth of accurate, live information on the nature of these deals, and their impact on host countries and their citizens.

So how might this information help citizens of land-rich, poor countries?  It could help by shining a light on the processes and decision-making leading to land-tenure conditions and procedures, and by opening them up to public scrutiny. Making official, accurate information about land already sold to investors publicly available, and creating more public clarity about who has rights to use land, and for what, would be good first steps. In Africa, particularly, land rights for the majority of farming and pastoralist communities are not clearly acknowledged or recorded, and local government and communities are not always well informed on the laws of land ownership or how transactions are decided. Instead, when large-scale investors come calling, the dominant tenure right is held by the state. While there may be legitimate reasons for this, both the justification, and the checks and balances on how the state can act, are often lacking. Ensuring that existing rights to natural resources are documented and codified in transaction negotiations with investors is crucial.

However, as Marta Foresti outlined yesterday,  transparency alone may make little difference to development outcomes; citizens also need to be able to use the information effectively to gain meaningful change.

So what are the lessons that can be drawn from other transparency initiatives to bridge this gap for the land question? Drawing on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the Making the Forestry Sector Transparent project (MFST), the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) and the Open Contracting Initiative (OCI), the key things that seem to make a difference are:

  • Clarity of objectives and about how the outcome will be measured. This might seem obvious – but EITI didn’t have this at the start, which has caused some difficulty in measuring its impact beyond tracking the publication of data on revenue transfers. Light piloting to ensure that the machinery generating the information works may be needed (as it was for CoST), and the objectives and indicators need to follow this.
  • Meaningful consultation and participation.This needs plenty of time and space for effective participation to reach consensus on meaningful issues, such as the type of information to be published. Otherwise, you will end up with the lowest common denominator – usually the easiest thing to agree on – which is rarely the issue that will produce meaningful change.
  • Ability to use and disseminate the information made available. You need people with the capacity to analyse and use the information, and active media (including social media) that enable information released by public institutions to reach the hands of those who need it.
  • A clear, integrated institutional structure with distinct roles and mandates at both international and national levels to track progress towards the end goal. While a national institutional framework needs to be participatory and have provision for independent verification of progress, it is important to have an international body to set minimum benchmarks for data standards and transparency indicators, and to track progress towards these.Although the language of ‘transparency’ sounds apolitical, meaningful change on access to vital resources is anything but. It is crucial that there are functional institutions enabling people to participate in decision-making processes or to contest decisions that may do them harm. The international body could also provide the sense of welcoming countries to a progressive ‘club’: a powerful incentive for signing up, and which could provide a certain level of protected space for debate.
  • Data that is accessible in terms of both process and format.  Again, this is obvious but it certainly matters.

We expect to see the G8 make a major public commitment to support national governments and other actors in implementing the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security: a step to be welcomed, as the guidelines provide a robust framework for the protection of tenure rights essential for local livelihoods.

So, if the G8 delivers on a significant programme of work to promote clearer land rights and more protection for poor people’s livelihoods – working in partnership with governments, companies and civil society – is anything more needed? Well, it will be important to support LICs to negotiate the right terms for land acquisitions. The World Bank’s Extractive Industries Technical Advisory Facility provides advisory services to resource-rich, developing-country governments for capacity building for contract negotiations and associated policy reforms in extractives, and could be an interesting model.

However, there is still some way to go before we could be sure we can monitor the realities of social change resulting from land acquisition. To ensure protection for poor people’s natural-resource rights are real and meaningful, it is important to get a much better sense of what is actually happening to people on the ground when land deals happen. This is the only way to determine whether they actually represent the best option for rural development.