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Resource Rights

Land issues remain key in battle against hunger

By Justin Kilcullen, Director of Trócaire, 20 February 2012

As government officials, UN bodies and aid organisations sit around the table in Rome this week as part of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Committee on World Food Security meeting, the fact that one billion people will not have enough food to eat should be enough to spur them into action.

The objective of the meeting is to reach agreement by Friday (March 9th) on guidelines pertaining to land distribution and access to land. Such an agreement, if it can be reached, could be a long-overdue step on the road to tackling one of the real root causes of global hunger.

Successive commitments have been made on tackling hunger since the early 1970s. Yet, over the last forty years the number of people going hungry has doubled to one billion.

Something, clearly, is not working, especially when technological advances in food production during that time are taken into account.

Hunger is not an inevitable fact of life. Hunger is the logical consequence of a series of failures and injustices linked to policies and access to resources. Seventy per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend upon agriculture for survival. It is logical, therefore, that the issue of land – who owns it, who has access to it, and who benefits from it – is fundamental in the battle against hunger.

Over the past 10 years we have witnessed an increasing politicisation of land and water, as politics and power dictate who has access to these vital resources.

Large scale multi-nationals and political elites engaging in agri-business, bio fuels, export orientated food production and mineral extraction are putting increased pressure on land and water. The growing competition for natural resources is forcing poor communities further into the margins. In Guatemala, for example, less than 8 per cent of agricultural producers hold almost 80 per cent of land. This is not untypical for Central America as a whole, nor is the fact that 70 per cent of indigenous children under the age of five in Guatemala are malnourished.

Africa, in particular, has seen an increased momentum for large scale ‘land grabs’, with private investors and capital rich but resource poor countries buying or leasing enormous tracts of fertile land. A report by the US-based Oakland Institute last year analysed a series of land deals in countries across Africa and found that the purchases of land, often by large institutional investors, were mostly unregulated, produced few of the promised benefits to local people, and created serious food insecurity by forcing thousands of farming communities off their land.

The report highlighted just how easy it is for foreign multinationals to acquire land in Africa, often benefiting from extremely generous tax holidays, zero per cent duty on imports, and low or non-existent rent on large tracts of land.

I recall on a visit to Mozambique standing with a group of small farmers at a fence which prohibited them from entering the land they once farmed. This land had been taken from them and given to a multi-national company with no regard for their own ability to survive. These people were by no means unique. Tens of thousands of people have been forcibly evicted from their land in Ethiopia, while in Uganda thousands of families are seeking compensation for land evictions arising from the alleged reallocation of the land to private investors.

There is no single ‘magic bullet’ to rid the world of hunger. It requires political will to tackle vested interests on a number of fronts, including responding to climate change, investing in small scale agriculture, and promoting gender equality.

Through the Hunger Task Force, Ireland has championed the fight against hunger and this country is rightly held in high esteem internationally for its high quality aid programme. This is important. Aid is an essential life-line to the most vulnerable, but we can’t expect aid alone to end poverty or to reverse the upward trend in hunger.

For that we need to tackle the really difficult issues, which are often complex, messy and entrenched with vested interests. Land is one such issue. By next Friday we will know how serious the wealthy governments of the world are in tackling it.

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