Rural 21; Bonn Dialogue

From the 4th to the 6th June 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development –“Rio plus 20” – is to be held in Rio de Janeiro/Brazil. In the run-up to this Conference, at the invitation of the German Federal Government, more than 600 representatives of politics and science, international organisations, the private sector and civil society met in Bonn from the 16th to the 18th November 2011.

There, new solutions to ensuring world-wide water, energy and food supplies were to be found – “integrated solutions for an interconnected world”. The topics discussed accordingly ranged from various aspects regarding agriculture (modern/urban), water (innovative management/corporate stewardship/dams/sanitation and hygiene) and energy (sustainable/bio) through “ending food waste from field to fork” and “risks and opportunities for private finance” to the “human rights perspective”. Two events were specially devoted to the soil.

Soils should not be left to themselves
Joachim von Braun, Director of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Bonn, Germany, warned not to neglect the issue of soil in the Rio-plus-20 Process. The fact that agricultural land prices in many parts of the world had doubled or even tripled in recent years was encouraging since it reflected the scarcity and asset value of land. It was also encouraging that the United Nations was giving more attention to the subject, for example in the context of the Global Soil Partnership initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in September 2011. However, the problem of global land degradation was not attracting nearly enough attention as it deserved.

Von Braun quoted results from the survey “The economics of land degradation” that his institute had recently published together with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The survey uses various case studies to contrast the cost of action with the cost of inaction. In almost all cases, the cost of action was much lower than the cost of inaction. So soil conservation measures were worthwhile even though they appeared to be expensive at first glance. In addition, the studies demonstrated a clear positive correlation between poverty and higher land degradation. While this positive correlation also existed between government effectiveness and lower land degradation, there was no automatic relation between population growth und land degradation. Von Braun’s message of hope was that “We can manage soils with nine million people in the world!” However, this required a proper partnership concept taking the global dimension of land degradation into consideration. It was also important to separate political decision processes from research-driven processes,” von Braun said, adding that “socio-economics must be part of the solution”.

Land grabbing: Black sheep have to be stopped
A further session was devoted to large-scale investments in land. Stefan Schmitz of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) reminded the Conference that agriculture had been neglected in many countries for decades and that investments in agriculture were desperately needed in order to meet the growing demand for food in the world and achieve food security. Here, however, the fact must not be forgotten that in many cases of foreign direct investments (FDI), human rights were being violated and the principle of sustainability and fair share of profits and benefits was not being observed. It was only possible to push investors in the right direction through transparency and monitoring, through “naming and shaming”.

Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director von Oxfam International, agreed. He gave many accounts of land grabbing in Uganda in which people had been driven from their land. Publishing these cases had resulted in successful steps being taken against the enterprises involved. The Ambassador of Uganda, Francis K. Butagira, who attended the Conference, disputed these statements. “The land was given to the investors to the benefit of the people,” the former judge at the high court of Uganda claimed. “In not a single case was land snatched from the peasants for this purpose – and had this been the case, they could have defended themselves in court.”

Agusdin Pulungan, President of the Indonesian Farmers and Fisherfolk Society, gave an account of the detrimental effects that FDI was having in his country. Mechanisation and the massive use of chemicals were having a negative impact on the environment and biodiversity. “Big investors want to earn money and are not interested in soil conservation,” Pulungan complained. “The governments approve of the investments because they believe that they will help develop infrastructure. But it is a fact that natural resources are being destroyed. This is a long way off from a green economy.” The majority of the Indonesian farmers were smallholders with plots smaller than 2 hectares. In reality, owing to the high price of land, it was difficult for young people in particular to get land and thus secure a livelihood by producing cash crops.

The myth of unused land

The big unknown in the discussion over land grabbing continues to be the true extent of the phenomenon. In its latest survey, the non-governmental organisation Oxfam refers to 227 million hectares world-wide since 2000 (see report  “Land and power” According to Tanja Pickardt of “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit”, several organisations were working on a cross-checking of the various data cited by the press in the context of a land matrix partnership. Here, 67 million hectares had so far been verified. This had also revealed that the main focus of investments was in areas with high agricultural potential. Top priority was given to Africa, followed by Asia and Latin America, Pickardt maintained. One very strong focus of the land deals was along rivers (e.g. the Niger) and above all on upstream regions of rivers (e.g. the Nile basin). So far, growing food crops had played the biggest role, followed by biofuels, the share of which will continue to rise according to Pickard’s estimates.

Babette Wehrmann of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reminded the Conference that large-scale investments in land also directly affected energy and water supplies for the local population; even if the land perhaps belonged to nobody, in many cases, the land deals were depriving people of the possibility to find water in the dry season or to produce firewood. Based on her consulting activities in Asia, Wehrmann named possible solutions. In Cambodia, for example, people were identifying land they were using, while the option of community entitling was being discussed in Laos.

Does size matter?
In the discussion, opinions diverged regarding a direct link between the volume of investments and their impacts, whereas participants agreed on the importance of combating corruption and good governance. To wind up the Conference, Stefan Schmitz emphasised the importance of political dialogue with the partner countries and referred to six principles that German Development Co-operation has to guide its own projects:

  • participation, transparency and accountability
  • respect of existing land and water rights
  • respect of the right to food
  • if displacement of people is not avoidable, it must be in line with UN guidelines
  • protection and management of natural resources must be ensured
  • the projects need to lead to a real benefit for the local population.

For further reading: A wide range of contributions from the Conference participants are available for downloading at:


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