Human Rights Against Land Grabbing? A Reflection on Norms, Policies, and Power


Wisborg, Poul. 2013. “Human Rights Against Land Grabbing? A Reflection on Norms, Policies, and Power.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 26 (6): 1199–1222. doi:10.1007/s10806-013-9449-8.

Author: Poul Wisborg


Large-scale transnational land acquisition of agricultural land in the global south by rich corporations or countries raises challenging normative questions. In this article, the author critically examines and advocates a human rights approach to these questions. Mutually reinforcing, policies, governance and practice promote equitable and secure land tenure that in turn, strengthens other human rights, such as to employment, livelihood and food. Human rights therefore provide standards for evaluating processes and outcomes of transnational land acquisitions and, thus, for determining whether they are ethically unacceptable land grabs. A variety of recent policy initiatives on the issue have evoked human rights, most centrally through the consultation and negotiation of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests concluded in 2012. However, a case of transnational land appropriation illustrates weak host and investor state enforcement of human rights, leaving the parties to in interaction with local groups in charge of protecting human rights. Generally, we have so far seen limited direct application of human rights by states in their governance of transnational land acquisition. Normative responses to transnational land acquisition— codes of conduct, principles of responsible agricultural investment or voluntary guidelines—do not in themselves secure necessary action and change. Applying human rights approaches one must therefore also analyze the material conditions, power relations and political processes that determine whether and how women and men can secure the human rights accountability of the corporations and governments that promote large-scale, transnational land acquisition in the global south.

Keywords: land acquisition, land grab, human rights, policy, voluntary guidelines, africa

Topics: Gender, Governance, Land grabbing, Livelihoods, Multi-national Corporations, Rights, Human Rights, Land Rights Regions: Africa

Year: 2013

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