Sweden must work to stop land grabbing

Fewer and fewer own more and more of the world's arable land. Pension funds, governments and multinational companies are some of those who invest in land - at the expense of smallholders and indigenous peoples. Now Sweden must act to defend people's right to food, land and power, writes Rebecka Jalvemyr at the organization FIAN.

The food, energy and financial crises of recent years have led to a steady increase in demand for food, minerals, fuel and animal feed. This means that land is seen as an attractive investment. Investors who seize large areas of land range from pension funds to governments and multinational companies that buy up or lease land over a long period of time.

Attractes with jobs for the poor

The majority of cases of land grabbing take place in countries where land was previously owned by the state, but which has been used by groups that have varying degrees of recognition and protection of their traditional and informal land rights. In these countries, a large part of the population often lives in poverty. States and companies often use arguments that the large land acquisitions contribute to development and create jobs for the poor. However, reality shows that they lead to conflicts and serious violations of human rights such as the right to food, water and housing.

A few years ago, it seemed as if everyone was touchingly in agreement to get a stop on the wave of land grabbing. One of the biggest advances in preventing development was the development of The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (Tenure Guidelines) adopted by the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in May 2012. The guidelines were developed with the broad participation of states, the private sector, civil society and academia. The aim is to improve states' management of land, fishing and forest rights for the benefit of all, but with a special focus on vulnerable and marginalized groups. For example, the importance of protecting traditional and informal land rights is stated. Now the debate has cooled down and two different perspectives on looking at land have crystallized and with it two different solutions.

1. Land as a commodity: market-based perspective

The first perspective assumes that land without private individual ownership is dead capital as it cannot be used for financial transactions or as collateral for investments. It is also assumed that market solutions can make land use more efficient by making it easy for people living in poverty to sell their land and leave agriculture. Common, public or state land is seen here as a lost (economic) asset that should be made available to private individuals who are assumed to be rational economic actors.

This perspective uses concepts such as formalization of land rights, secure land rights and protection of private property. Those who adopt this perspective include the World Bank and investors who are trying to make land grabbing work by developing principles for investors, but otherwise continue as usual.

2. Land as a human right: human rights-based perspective

The second perspective is based on the premise that access to land and natural resources is fundamental to the fulfillment of a number of fundamental human rights, such as the right to food, water, housing and culture. States are accountable with an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. People are seen as rights holders. This means the right to - individually or together with others - use and control land and related natural resources in order to be able to support themselves and live and develop cultures and territories.

Central to this is the right to self-determination, which involves people's participation in the development of policies, regulations and policies, such as land (redistribution), common land rights and restrictions on land transfer. This perspective focuses on structural aspects and seeks not only to stop land grabbing but also to ensure democratic control over natural resources. Several of the UN Special Rapporteurs have supported this perspective and believe that the land rights of smallholders and indigenous peoples must be strengthened.

Land grabbing must be on the agenda

As land grabbing continues, without showing signs of slowing down, it is clear that the debate must be revived and that the understanding of what land grabbing is must be broadened. Land grabbing is about everything from access to and control over natural resources and all the global political, economic and financial processes that are taking place right now - not least current climate change.

Land grabbing does not just mean the physical looting of resources. It is also about taking control of crucial decision-making processes about how, by whom and for what purpose natural resources should be used. Many of today's land grabbing cases are legal, but for that reason not legitimate. Central to this is how powerful actors in, for example, the agricultural industry gain increased influence over interpretations, or pure rewritings, of regulations and laws to control resources.

The government must choose the human rights perspective

The government has committed itself to the entire policy pursued towards global sustainable development. If Sweden is serious about this, we must choose the human rights perspective over the market perspective - and that requires rules and follow-up for companies and investments.

We must also support small-scale farmers and producers as their activities are essential for sustainable development and global justice. The UN is currently preparing a declaration on the rights of smallholders and rural workers. The aim is to get legislation that protects their interests. Sweden should actively work for such a declaration and for a full implementation of Tenure Guidelines to stop land grabbing globally.

Rebecca Jalvemyr

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

Do you also want to write a debate article for Uttvecklingsmagasinet? Contact us at

Share this: