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puce Editorial. October 14th, 2011
AGTER’s Newsletter
Michel Merlet

The association AGTER runs an international network of people, exchanging and thinking together how to improve the governance of land, water and natural resources. The network selects and makes information available but it also formulates suggestions and alternatives to face the current great challenges. A quaterly newsletter presents the latest information available on our website : www.agter.asso.fr. Each newsletter is introduced with an editorial written by a member of AGTER’s network.

Hunters, fishers, and farmers have always been the world’s main « investors ». They have invested considerable work in transforming and improving land, constructing irrigation systems, and selecting the best animal and vegetable varieties. While doing so, they have accumulated an important body of knowledge and developed new, ever evolving forms of social organization, hence creating « human » and « social » capital as well. A very large proportion of these small producers have become poorer over the last few decades. They are no longer able to meet basic needs. Nor are they able to continue « investing » in the efficiency of their production systems or in adaptations to quickly changing social, technical, and climactic conditions. They are the billion people on earth suffering from hunger, dying of malnutrition, and migrating in massive numbers to slums and megalopolis’ that cannot provide employment to all.

What has happened ? And why, as this is happening, are we also facing the exponential growth of huge corporations that take over tens and hundreds of millions of hectares with the proclaimed goal of feeding the world ? How can we explain the increasingly unequal productivity levels of different agricultural systems ? Is this finally the « end of the peasantry », long predicted by visionaries of every political brand ?

In the space of only a few decades, the small farmers - men and women, producers and investors since the beginning of time - have become the poor and the miserable, a burden upon society. Reducing poverty is one of the most important Millennium Development Goals; giving to charity is no longer a good deed, but a universal expectation. At the same time, the land and the natural wealth it produces are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. People have been dispossessed of their resources; common goods have been privatized ; all resources are being exhausted, biodiversity is irreversibly disappearing, and the changing climate threatens to make the earth uninhabitable.

We combed all of the reports about land seizures written by high level (and mid-level) experts for allusions to the investment of small-scale producers. The only kinds of investment mentioned, the ones that everyone hopes to make « responsible », were the investments of pension funds, transnational agribusiness firms, and wealthy entrepreneurs (from both the developing and the developed world). The best of faith cannot prevent most from being mislead by the contemporary usage of the word « investment », which represents a veritable campaign of disinformation operating on a global scale. It is coupled with a commitment to political correctness that far more perverse than it seems: even attempting to understand what is happening has become subversive.

When the World Bank, the FAO, the IFAD, and UNCTAD put forth Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI), it is not the principles themselves that are bad, but rather the way in which they define “investment.” Small Farmers’ organizations and NGOs are not wrong in claiming that it will never be ‘responsible’ to appropriate land, natural resources, or common goods.

Next week, the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security is meeting in Rome to review Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in hopes of approving them. This meeting is the culmination of a long series of consultations, and an important first move towards the implementation of regulatory mechanisms that will help to protect the interests of the general population. For the first time, the CFS will include civil society representatives, who will also serve on their High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). They plan to commence negotiations concerning new Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment, which would be integrated with existing voluntary guidelines. With this goal in mind, the HLPE commissioned a report on land tenure and international investments in agriculture, which was made public this summer.

This HLPE report emphasizes that large scale investment in land is damaging food security, incomes, livelihoods and environment. It calls on governments to recognize the right to free, prior and informed consent regarding the land and natural resources on which they depend for their livelihoods, to secure land and resource access for local land users, and abolish targets and subsidies for biofuels. The report indicates that agricultural development strategies must give priority to smaller producers, by providing them with the support they need to improve their productivity and promoting their access to local and regional markets. It recommends ‘win-win-win’ strategies that prioritize the benefit of society as a whole in addition to that of smaller producers and larger companies.

The HLPE report on land claims to take all opinions into account, but it does not provide the keys necessary to fully understand the problem. One can easily feel lost in a world where investors, nation-states, donors, multinational companies, and traders rub elbows with the poor and the starving. The authors of the report suggest forms of integrated agriculture, business plans, and consultations, and - this is a good thing - ways in which smaller producers, previous excluded from discourse, can modernize their production systems. That said, the authors never question the meaning of the word ‘investment’ as it is commonly used, and make no mention of small-scale farmers’ investments - nor of the reasons behind today’s increasing poverty.

In a variety of different ways, AGTER has indirectly taken part in the debates and reflections surrounding the FAO and the CSA’s work. Our own work around agricultural land and natural resource grabbing, which we have undertaken with the help of diverse partners including academics, has sought to analyze and comprehend the nature of these phenomena. Though we still need to build upon it, it has already brought some essential information to light, and can be used to construct solutions that benefit everyone.

1. Discussions about « Land investment » usually imply the appropriation of communal or public lands, or the concentration of private lands. If we want to avoid ideological arguments, and remain vigorous in our discussion of this issue, our terms must be clear. The problems at hand are not exclusively related to human rights. They also have economic implications, which must be taken into account if we wish to meet the vital interests and needs of all of humanity immediately and in the long term. Our work shows that land becomes a central « financial asset » for capitalists when the proportion of added value that goes towards remunerating capital is preponderant - and the cost of accessing the land and paying the workers minimized. We must differentiate between speculators, land grabbers, and real investors !

2. As it currently stands, international governance is not capable of addressing the problems created by massive land appropriations. It is useless to rely exclusively on further reinforcements of national sovereignty. No matter how long it takes to do so, we must address the weaknesses of international law -which will not be sufficient until it is justiciable.

We have only just begun to explore the various ways in which we can go forward; these are discussed in the documents that we have prepared. It is necessary to go further with the help of concerned individuals and groups. There will be winners and losers in the short term. It is only in the long term that we can all be winners.

Michel Merlet

Director, AGTER.

October 14th, 2011

Translation from French to English : Jesse Rafert

During the week of October 17th, AGTER will accompany the French Delegation and Coordination Sud to Rome, to participate in The Committee on World Food Security meeting.

The French, Spanish, and English articles and videos that we present here differ.

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