The call for an international set of guidelines came from many quarters between 2008 and 2010, but was largely driven by concerns raised in international fora by civil society, member states, development partners, and the private sector. These concerns primarily pertained to food security (and specifically food price spikes) and access, and rights to land and other resources by small, medium and large scale producers as they impact investments in food production systems.
One of the more notable concerns driving the development of the Guidelines was related to large scale land acquisitions (including what some organizations may sometimes refer to as “land grabbing”). Through a technical process FAO developed the initial draft of the Guidelines, and then initiated a process of input and consultation over two years before the document was given to the UN Committee for World Food Security (UN CFS) for negotiation.
As the subject of land rights can be very political (no international guidance can address the plethora of land challenges from Latin America to Africa to Asia and beyond with one-solution fits-all-problems), and civil society organizations, member states, and the private sector often have different views and needs in achieving their respective objectives, you can imagine it was not an easy task for CFS to agree to a set of guidelines.
The scale of the global land grab is staggering. While international actors have made excellent progress establishing complaint boards, issuing principles for responsible investment, and securing commitments from multinational corporations, these protections do not chart a clear course of action that communities can follow to protect their lands and natural resources before an investor arrives seeking land.
The problem is that once an investor arrives to “consult with” a community, it may be too late. After a deal has been made in capital city conference rooms or in clandestine meetings between chiefs and company representatives, communities are forced on the defensive. At this point, all they can do is try to mitigate the negative impacts of investors' plans rather than assertively proclaiming their legal rights, demanding that the investor abide by FPIC principles, and then choosing whether to reject the investment or accept it on terms that ensure that the community benefits and prospers.
Meanwhile, many of the “investors” grabbing land are national or local elites unaccountable to international institutions – the cousin of the President or the nephew of the Minister – who operate with complete impunity, protected by powerful connections to government, the judiciary and the police. Such individuals do not answer to shareholders or complaint boards, and are not the least bit concerned with principles of corporate social responsibility. If a community’s land claims are unrecognized or undocumented – and if the community’s leadership is weak or corrupt – the easier it is for these elites to manipulate their power to claim what land they want.
To have a fighting chance against elites’ badfaith actions, communities must proactively take steps to know and enforce their rights, prevent their leaders from transacting land without community approval, and seek legal recognition of their land claims. And they must do so before elites and investors arrive.