Land grabbing: Land grabbing with Swiss involvement

Throughout the world, agricultural land is being bought up or leased by individual countries or by investment funds. The project examined the circumstances and effects of a large-scale land acquisitions in Sierra Leone by Addax Bioenergy (ABSL).

  • Background (completed research project)

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    In 2008, ABSL, a subsidiary of the Swiss-based oil company Addax Oryx Group (AOG) Energy, entered into a 50-year lease for 54,000 hectares of agricultural land in Sierra Leone. ABSL operates a monoculture farming activity raising 10,000 hectares of sugar cane and using 4,300 hectares for ecological compensation and rice cultivation. The sugar cane is used in the production of bioethanol for the export market. The project meets the requirements of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) and therefore complies with the EU criteria relating to land use and greenhouse gas emissions for biofuels. With the change from the traditional agricultural practices to an export-oriented monoculture, the majority of the affected population has experienced a reorientation from a subsistence economy to waged work.

  • Aim

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    The principal aim was to determine how to assess investment in agricultural land from the perspective of sustainability. The work needed to develop a conceptual framework that is tailored to the sustainability of large-scale land acquisitions in order to investigate the effects of the project and formulate political and regulatory frameworks.

  • Results

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    Overall, the project allowed the locally affected households to significantly improve their income situation and food security through the strong expansion of waged work in particular. In contrast, however, there has been a considerable reduction in the number of income sources from agriculture. As a consequence, families in the region studied are more susceptible to the effects of fluctuation and crises. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that the 18% increase in income in the investigated region was almost completely consumed by higher expenditure on buying in food due to the much lower level of own agricultural activity.

    With the project, local workers in the affected region increasingly moved away from family businesses towards short-term waged work in factories or sugar cane plantations. The motivation behind land ownership is no longer the need to secure an autonomous source of self-supply, rather it is seen as a monetary good. This results in socio-economic inequality, which in some cases affects entire village communities.

    In addition to traditional status indicators, the sustainability assessment of large-scale land acquisitions must take account of process indicators such as fairness and transparency in the contract negotiation process. As the conversion to monoculture often represents an irreversible process, the extent to which social-ecological vulnerability and resilience are impacted must also be considered. This means thinking about how the affected society remains able to respond to shocking changes such as disease (e.g. Ebola), collapse in the price of raw materials, etc. Ultimately, a comprehensive sustainability analysis must also take account of the systemic effects such as changes to rules that affect the relationship between people and nature and their work.

  • Importance for research

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    The project team developed a comprehensive conceptual framework for analysing the sustainability of large-scale land acquisitions. It produced an independent analysis of the effects inside and outside a region in which large-scale land acquisitions is occurring. This has allowed ethical and legal questions to be defined in clear terms and thus opened up discussion. The research has shown what legal changes at international level are required in the countries of origin and investment so that large-scale land acquisitions meet national and international standards. Moreover, a utility-based approach with added human-rights factors was used to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages.

  • Practical significance

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    The investigations undertaken allow a comprehensive assessment to be made of large-scale land acquisitions. This will help provide a sound foundation for law and policy-making initiatives regarding the use of products from such projects (biofuels, agricultural commodities, etc.). The international availability of the findings will permit decision-makers in affected regions to consider the consequences of planned and existing investment in agricultural land on the basis of solid research. It has been shown that there is a need to conduct vulnerability analyses and define an emergency plan with corresponding responsibilities and funding options before implementation of such projects.

  • Original title

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    Sustainable Soil Governance and Large Scale Land Acquisitions originating in Switzerland