Land grabbing – NGOs giving the UN a push

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by Tuuli Orasmaa

On 15th April, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a news brief celebrating a second multinational company’s, PepsiCo’s, decision to support international guidelines on sustainable land tenure governance. The first one, Coca-Cola Company, made the move in November 2013. But why is this news worth noting? First of all, this may be seen as an important step in the fight against the global “land grabbing” phenomenon and secondly, this shows the power civil society organizations may have in issues the United Nations is struggling with.

In May 2012, the FAO endorsed, after years of preparations, the ‘Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure’. This was the United Nations’ response to the intensified debate on the issue of “land grabbing”. Land grabbing is a familiarised term for large-scale land acquisitions that have increased over the last ten years. Since the early 2000’s, over 200 million hectares of land have been traded or leased from the public to the private sector. This composes more than three times the surface of France. The majority of these contracts are closed between African states and foreign companies. The risk of this on-going process is that countries in the global South lose potential farming land, thus reducing their food security.


The UN’s effort to face this challenge was timid, though. The Guidelines are by no means binding and there are no mechanisms to assess their implementation. This is why the joining of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Company has been lauded by the FAO. It is a sign of slowly changing attitudes and raising awareness on this issue. What is more important, this may trigger a larger-scale awakening of multinational corporations to rethink their practices. With no visible engagement of the private sector in the movement against land grabbing, the Guidelines would lose the power they might otherwise have.

Still, it would be misleading to attribute this progress to the UN system. Land grabbing has become a hot issue among civil society- and non-governmental organizations. This has surely contributed to the general awareness of the problem. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that the first companies to publicly back the Guidelines are PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Company. A considerable share of credit can be given to Oxfam and its Behind the brands – Stop land grabs –campaign, out of which these two companies have been major targets. Working with Oxfam, they have published their own policies concerning land acquisitions, and Coca-Cola Company is now performing considerably better, according to Oxfam – PepsiCo’s progress remains still to be seen.

Land grabbing is an issue where the role of the civil society can have a remarkable impact. The United Nations system is not aiming at setting direct obligations on the private sector, yet a large share of the global land deals is made there by foreign and domestic enterprises. There is a gap between what the UN wishes to change and what they are really able to do. It does seem that the civil society can effectively fill this gap, as Oxfam has showed. By appealing to consumers and the big public, civil society can have a more binding grab on the private sector, and thus on the companies whose practices they want to change. Possibly, after the first companies have joined the movement the others start to feel pressure to do the same. This pressure could have never been created merely by voluntary guidelines.

More information on Oxfam’s campaigns:
On land grabbing:
Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure:

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