Indigenous communities face growing displacement through ‘land grabs’

indigenous displacement

Kogui indigenous group, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Creative Commons: Sarahtz, 2014

In the last decade, an increasing number of aboriginal people have been displaced as large companies push onto traditional territories to extract resources, a UN specialist on indigenous people’s rights said.

In conversation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a UN conference on aboriginal people and agricultural financing, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People’s, said:

A lot of money is going into (land) speculation; this has worsened the situation. Huge plantations are encroaching on indigenous land; biodiversity and forests have been hurt. Displacement has gotten worse in the last 10 years.

According to a study at Sweden’s Lund University, 126 countries now participate in a new type of ‘virtual land trade’, often referred to a system that not only produces and trades goods, but where land ownership itself is traded internationally.

Figures on aboriginal displacement in the last decade were not available, but according to the study, 32.7 million and 82.2 million hectares of land were sold in international deals between 2000 and 2012.

China, the United States, Britain, Germany, and a small group of other nations account for the majority of large-scale land acquisitions, often referred to as ‘land grabbing’.

China alone imported land ownership from 33 countries.

While this can offer opportunities of economic and social development for poorer countries, it often has detrimental effects for local communities, such as small-scale farmers. Moreover, often the land is not being used for its original purpose.

Michael Kugelman of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington criticised that a high proportion of land acquired between 2006 and 2009 has not been farmed until now. This has been blamed on local protests, investors’ lack of agricultural expertise, and falling commodity prices.

Moreover, Kugelman said that many private investors purchase land without the intention of ever farming it, as they wait for its value to increase. He said: ‘The idea of fencing off critically needed farmland and just having it sit there is troubling.”

Indigenous people, an estimated population of 370 million spread across 70 countries, often suffer from severe poverty, discrimination and a lack of political representation, as the United Nations has reported

In order to tackle this, Tauli-Corpuz said that UN agencies should cooperate directly with indigenous communities, rather than rely on national governments putting development plans into action.

Antonella Cordone, senior official from the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), a UN agency which loans money to countries for rural investment projects, echoed Tauli-Corpuz’s concerns.

At the country level (when new projects are being planned with UN support), the rights of indigenous peoples aren’t always recognised. Listening to indigenous peoples helps us to better support their traditional food systems.

IFAD reported that unclear land ownership structures, climate change and mono-crop plantations threaten indigenous agriculture. At the same time, the traditional knowledge and practices can help preserve biodiversity.

Commenting on the study findings, Jonathan Seaquist, lead researcher and Associate Professor of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science at Lund University, said:

This work demonstrates that we live in ‘a global village’ as far as land is concerned. Decisions made on one part of the planet can affect the land productivity, biodiversity, and the well-being of people on another.

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