Land rights: targets, expectations and tools for businesses | Land Portal

By: Clelia Daniel 

Date: August 10th 2016

Source: CSR Asia


The International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR), a human rights umbrella organization, recently stated that Southeast Asia is facing increasing conflicts and violence over land grab activity. Land grab relates to speculation and illegal and unethical transfer of lands, small and large. IFHR says the situation is particularly pronounced in Cambodia, where land grabbing has displaced more than 800,000 people since 2000.


Land rights are cited in the very first two Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), underlining the indissoluble link between land, poverty and hunger. The Sustainable Development Goals are a rich resource for businesses that want to rethink their impacts and join forces with their governments and communities. By 2030 the international community has agreed to the following vision:


  • End poverty in all its forms everywhere and ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance. (target 1.4)
  • End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture and double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment. (target 2.3) 

Whilst some leading multinational companies recognise and are beginning to address land rights and related issues, in most countries, big gaps remain in preventing land grabs and their detrimental social and development impacts.


Since 2013, a few companies have stated their commitment to respecting local land claims, including brands such asCoca-ColaPepsicoUnilever and Nestlé, often in response to external pressure and with the help of specialized NGOs and through large consultations. However, both companies and civil society admit that meeting these commitments have not been easy, especially in high-risk countries where the tenure security cannot be assured; or there is poor land governance or environmental degradation.


Companies need to recognise that land rights cannot be separated from broader human rights issues. From a risk perspective, land misuse and conflicts over land ownership may result in unexpected legal and material costs for businesses and governments. Several studies and reports (2012) (2014), have shown that companies that ignore land tenure rights expose themselves to potentially disastrous financial risks. Conflict with local communities can result in lost productivity and opportunity costs that are irreversible. Insecure rights to land is a key reason  for the next generation of farmers to vacate land and no farmer will commit to investing in productivity improvements if they are unsure about their right to land in a year’s time. It is therefore important that businesses engage with land rights issues not only to protect vulnerable people’s interests, but also to ensure the continuity of their own business.


Meanwhile, innovative approaches to solving land conflicts are being explored worldwide. A publication released in July by the Mekong Regional Land Governance project (MRLG), analyses a case involving a private company and several indigenous communities in Cambodia who lost some of their customary lands and forests when the company obtained a concession to grow rubber. The study confirmed that solutions are possible but lengthy and complicated, requiring the involvement of multiple stakeholders, detailed technical data collection, and delicate negotiation requirements. Another key takeaway was that without the financial pressure created by direct contact with financial backers, the process would never have gone forward.


Investors – including development banks – are increasingly expected to do their part and assess very carefully beyond companies’ statements on what the practices on the ground actually are before lending their funds. Since 2014, Oxfam Australia has scrutinized the big 4 Australian banks that are providing funds to agriculture and timber companies linked to land grabs in developing countries — namely ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, NAB and Westpac. Their latest report Still banking on land grabs (2016) states that little has changed for affected communities since their first report. On a positive note, Oxfam says that the public and investor pressure has led the banks to take land rights seriously — with Westpac and NAB making more progress than others.


The expectations of a large number of civil society organizations towards the private sector are summarised in the Land Right Now campaign, which states that all corporations, and national and international financial institutions, including banks, pension and private equity funds should:


  • Recognize and protect Indigenous Peoples’ and community land rights through their operations, including those of financial intermediaries.
  • Comply with a principle of zero tolerance on land grabbing, including by respecting human rights and the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, inclusive of traditional leaders, men, women and youth.
  • Undertake gender-responsive due diligence on human rights, including by implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
  • Implement and require compliance with the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure across their national and international value chains.
  • Develop and implement policies (and establish grievance mechanisms) necessary to avoid, reduce, mitigate and remedy any direct and indirect impact on the lands and natural resources of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
  • Ensure clear commitments, transparency and accountability in any operation and investment that may affect the lands or livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

For companies that have not yet addressed this issue, a number of tools and guidance materials are available. These resources are never promoted enough, and unfortunately they are not made accessible and applied in practice amongst the business community and their advisors.  To cite some of the most important ones:


Asian companies should be less timid about their commitments on land issues, the time is ripe for joint actions with civil society and international organizations, but also with other industry peers to explore more innovative solutions to ensure small-scale food producers, women, indigenous peoples, farmers, pastoralists and fishermen have access to land and are part of the global supply chain.


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Photo source: Asian Development Bank  via Flickr/Creative Commons (CC By-NC-ND 2.0). Photo: © Asian Development Bank

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