- Most conflicts besetting private investments in Africa – 63 percent – relate to pushing people off their lands.
- These conflicts affect agriculture, mining, and even green energy investments.
- In Southern Africa, 73 percent of conflicts turned violent and 73 percent halted work on the developments.
Companies operating in Africa would do well to avoid conflicts over land with local populations, according to new research by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a Washington, D.C.-based NGO that works on land rights issues around the world. Scuffles with and among local communities carry the risk of hurting their bottom lines, not to mention violating the human rights of the people who live in these areas.
“The mistaken belief that Africa is a continent of empty, freely available land open for development has done so much harm,” said Andy White, a coordinator with RRI, in a statement. “No land is unclaimed, and uprooting communities without their consent from their lands and traditional livelihoods creates conflicts and social unrest.”
RRI and TMP Systems, a consulting firm, reported their results in a series of reports published Feb. 9, which examine the factors that lead to conflict over land rights across several regions in Africa. Most disputes besetting private investments in Africa – 63 percent, in fact – relate to pushing people off their lands. It affects agriculture for the production of sugarcane and palm oil, mining for gold, diamonds and coal, and even green energy to harvest wind and solar power, among other investments.
RRI investigated developments in West, East and Southern Africa, uncovering several regional differences.
Sugarcane farming and mining efforts were the primary culprits in Southern Africa. Nearly three-quarters of the conflicts over land rights there incited violence, which in turn slowed profits, the research showed, as 73 percent of these disputes also halted work on the developments.
In East Africa, infrastructure developments caused the most issues with land tenure. Kenya’s leaders, for example, have encouraged investments in wind farms to address the country’s power deficit. But protests have led to the cancellation of some wind power developments, and one in particular, a “flagship project” near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, has stagnated for more than a decade as local communities challenge its legitimacy in the courts.
Many oil palm investors have turned their attention from the industry’s epicenter in Southeast Asia to places like West Africa. The conducive climate and the perception of lower competition for land have enticed some of the world’s biggest palm oil producers to set up plantations. But the idea that the land is not already in use isn’t accurate, according to RRI’s research.
“Because of our soil, many investors are interested in coming to our country,” said Alioune Guèye, president of the Federation of Peasant Landowners in the West African country of Senegal, in the RRI statement. “But some of our most impoverished communities also live on that soil and rely on it for their survival.
“Too often, companies feel they can cut a deal with the government, raze the land, and create vast plantations while the locals are simply pushed out of the way. Without their land, these communities will have nothing,” he added. “Their rights must be respected.”
Another faulty perception, the authors write, is that companies can strike (relatively) easy bargains at high levels to use land under government control. In Tanzania, they found greater interest from investors interested in building railways and oil pipelines compared to Kenya because the Tanzanian government legally owns the land. But funding for a bioenergy company trying to develop a sugarcane plantation to produce ethanol dried up when the media and watchdog groups charged that the company in question, Agro EcoEnergy Tanzania, had not adequately obtained free, prior and informed consent from local villages.
Because local peoples’ lives are tied to that land and they often have customary, if not legal, control stretching back generations, such deals struck without local involvement are a recipe for conflict, RRI says.
The group’s research found that the “typical” land-centered conflict occurs in the poorest communities far from capitals, where presumably more oversight is possible. But nowadays, that news is reaching the broader business community and ultimately the consumers who buy the products that these companies are selling.
White told Mongabay that technology, especially in the form of cellphones, has a way of “democratizing accountability.” With instantaneous connections to the rest of the world, he said that “a shift” is occurring in which “local people can really hold all of us to account for activities in their areas.”
“People are far more connected,” White added.
That can translate into damaging the reputations of brands, such as Nestle and Unilever – what’s known as ‘reputational risk.’ These corporations understand that consumers don’t want to buy things at the cost of forcing people from their land, and they also know conflict with local groups will cost them time and money.
Enhanced connectivity among the masses has also provided a channel to expose the activities of lesser-known companies that produce goods such as rubber and palm oil but also do business with the big multinational corporations, White said.
In meetings across the continent, White has found that corporate representatives have had a message for their suppliers: “If you ever want to sell to us, you’re going to have to get right on these issues.”
The report points out that there are ways to avoid conflicts, and private investors are eager to include land rights risks in their due diligence. Working with local communities to map out how they currently use the land before development takes place should have a central role going forward, White said.
“Participatory mapping is the most powerful tool yet,” he said in an interview with Mongabay. This happens in part by allowing people to see how they’re using the land the live on in a visual way, and the resulting map also resonates with those interested in the investments.
“[It] also is a real tool to leverage influence with the companies and the government,” White said.
In addition to avoiding conflicts, engaging local communities also has the potential to conserve forest areas. Recent research by the World Resources Institute and RRI demonstrated that community-managed forests had deforestation rates that were 11 times lower than those outside their control.
“We’ve learned that communities can do [forest conservation] pretty well,” White said. And, he added, it’s a solution that’s available now, not one that still needs to be developed.
“It could be a hell of a lot faster than a carbon market.”
- The Munden Project & Rights and Resources Initiative. 2016. Tenure and Investment in East Africa.
- Rights and Resources Initiative. 2017. From Risk and Conflict to Peace and Prosperity: The Urgency of Securing Community Land Rights in a Turbulent World. Washington, DC: Rights and Resources Initiative.
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