Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Land grab?

Over the last ten years land equalling the size of Western Europe has been sold or leased in developing countries to international investors. Most of the acquisitions have taken place in the last two years and can be explained by the international food prices crisis of 2007-08 that sparked riots in a number of countries.

Keen to discover how these developments have impacted on local people Oxfam has conducted studies in Uganda, Indonesia, Guatemala, Honduras and Southern Sudan.

The resulting report – Land and Power: The growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investments in land - does not make for pleasant reading. Now the charity is calling for changes to ensure that any further investment contributes ‘to rather than undermine the food security and livelihoods of local communities.’

In Uganda, where following decades of human rights abuses multi-party politics were restored five years ago, Oxfam viewed the actions of the UK-based New Forests Company with alarm.

The charity accuses New Forest [NFC], which describes itself as ‘a sustainable and socially responsible forestry company’; of benefiting from what it claims was the forcible eviction of 22,500 people in the forest reserves of Namwasa and Luwunga in the Mudende District.

NFC is now leasing the land to plant trees. It has denied its operations are designed to sell carbon credits to companies in the developed world to offset their carbon emissions.

The company disputes the numbers evicted arguing its closer to 9,700.  They’ve cited a census paid for by them as evidence. However they’ve, so far, refused to make it publicly available. Meanwhile Oxfam’s figures said policy officer Radhika Sarin “were derived from speaking to former community leaders in Luwunga and estimating that a court case brought by 1,489 families in Namwasa represents, on the basis of five people per family, a further 7,445 people being evicted.”

NFC also disputes Oxfam’s claims, supported by testimonies from some of those evicted, that violence was used, by security personnel and government officials, with a company spokesperson saying “no violence was used and none has been reported to the NFC or local police.”

The company claims that the vast majority of those evicted were on the lands illegally and that as owners of the land the Uganda government could lease it to whomever they wanted.

However according to Sarin many of “those evicted have lived there for many years. But everyone affected has the right to fair consultation and compensation, including assistance in finding another place to live where they can raise their families. Oxfam doesn’t oppose investment in developing countries but the manner in which it is undertaken is important. Our report shows communities across the developing world are finding their land being grabbed from under them.”

The report, and the subsequent campaign, has however been attacked by the Ugandan government with the Minister of Water and Environment Maria Mutagamba stating NFC are “a responsible company who has performed satisfactorily within the legal, policy and regulatory frameworks of Uganda. The insinuation of a land grab by NFC is patently false.”  She has called for Oxfam to review their findings.

Meanwhile NFC has now agreed to conduct an external investigation into Oxfam’s claims. In a prepared statement the company said they “will consult many parties including Oxfam and would welcome their suggestions for appointees to a supervisory committee that we will establish.“

“ We will continue to monitor the situation on the ground in order to confirm that the investigation is happening. We are pleased at the news,” said Sarin.

Less pleasing however were Oxfam and other charities failure to get MPs to support their calls not to reduce overseas petitioners access to legal aid in cases against British companies operating abroad. The new Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was passed by the House of Commons on November 1st. Unless the House of Lords offers opposition it will become, after gaining Royal Assent, Law. Civil liberties organisation Liberty believes it ‘will decimate the legal aid system, placing justice beyond the reach of many.” 

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