Desperately seeking justice for land disputes in Africa

Desperately seeking justice for land disputes in Africa

Large scale land deals can bring benefits such as jobs, market access and infrastructure, but they can also dispossess people of land and other resources and can spark conflict over economic benefits, the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) said this week in a new report aimed at shedding light on demand for accountability amid resistance to land deals in Africa.

Part of the problem is that land deals are rarely transparent, and that there is limited accountability on the part of the public authorities that decide them, IIED said.

“We need to understand more about the accountability weaknesses in different contexts – such as the imbalances in legal frameworks and the ways in which political interests affect deals,” the report lead author Emily Polack said.

“We also need to understand what options citizens have to seek greater accountability – and how to strengthen the mechanisms they can use as well as their ability to use them.”

IIED said its new research report assesses the effectiveness of different ways citizens respond when they perceive land deals to be unjust.

“These efforts include letter writing, requesting an audience with authorities, forming local associations to strengthen negotiating power, and using courts and other formal legal mechanisms. Demonstrations can follow if these routes fail,” Polack explained.

The research – published by IIED in association with the International Development Research Centre – analyses legal frameworks in 12 African countries and reviews the cases of 16 large scale land deals.

The report also shows that few legal options are available to local groups and that there is an imbalance in the way laws protect investors, governments and communities.

Meanwhile, many of the smaller land deals pass unnoticed, leaving even fewer options for redress.

“On one hand, international investment law is strong and offers great protection to investors who seek to acquire large areas of land,” report co-author Lorenzo Cotula said.

“On the other, international human rights laws tend not to be very effective in protecting the rights of poor communities.

“Meanwhile, features of national laws provide the basis for rights and accountability but very often they legitimise abuses of power against the powerless,” Cotula added.

Dr Cotula is set to present the findings of the new report at a World Bank conference on large land deals in Washington DC on 8-11 April 2013.

In a continent where public accountability is precarious and almost non-existent, many land deals disputes don’t even reach courts, as the victims – mostly poor individuals or communities unable to afford legal fees – give up the legal battle before it even begins.

Most Africa’s judges and magistrates, corrupt beforehand by members of the political and business elite, usually rule against poor individuals or communities.

The struggle over land in Africa is one of the toughest battles many impoverished communities face, as the most powerful individuals expropriate land under false pretexts, or just force the land owners to sell at lower prices, which generates one of the worst forms of social injustice in modern history.

Almost 5% of Africa’s agricultural land has been bought or leased by investors since 2000, according to an international coalition of researchers and NGOs report released in April 2012.

Adrian Di Giovanni, of the International Development Research Centre said improved public accountability was critical to democracy as it enables local people to voice their concerns about large scale land deals.

“It discourages harmful investments and makes it more likely that everyone involved will gain from incoming investment,” he said.

*Photo by Finbarr O’Reilly/courtesy of The Guardian/Reuters. A land dispute in Kenya.

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