This article was originally published in PROPARCO magazine, PS&D (Private Sector and Development).
Developing agroindustry entails changes in land use and ownership. Best land-related practices can help investors avoid harmful impacts on individuals (both women and men), households, and communities. Best practices can give a voice to those often precluded – especially women – from being heard and participating meaningfully in land deals. Plus, when investors need land expertise to implement best practices, civil society can often collaboratively offer the needed talent and local knowledge.
Agro industrial development can involve transactions on vast tracts of land. Between 2000 and 2016, the Landmatrix database recorded more than 700 land deals in Africa and Asia covering 15 million hectares.1. In many of these deals, local communities were not included in negotiations, mostly due to a lack of formal titles and because informal and customary rights were either not identified or recognized. Many of these land investments adversely affected communities’ livelihoods and cultural landscapes, as well as sometimes igniting violent opposition to projects. The outcomes for investors can include reputational risks, operational problems, and decreasing investment returns.
Individuals and communities can be harmed when investments are not made according to best practices. Women and girls can bear a disproportionate share of the risks and negative impacts, and tend to be less likely to benefit from the economic and employment opportunities. The primary household impact is a loss of livelihood caused by displacement from the land, with the displaced population receiving no or insufficient compensation. Plus, investments can also drive changes to household land use when they prompt a shift to cash cropping from subsistence or local market crop production. This can lead to a general decline in household well-being when earnings are not spent, for example, on nutrition, health, and education.
Proper assessment and compensation of the social impact of land acquisition for agricultural projects involves identifying all land users and their rights to the land. Some local regulatory frameworks do not reflect traditional and informal rights. Even when customary norms and practices are recognized by national governance frameworks, some rights holders — especially women – can be excluded when land transactions occur.
Investments that focus on the community or the household when designing compensation for the loss of land and livelihood can wrongly cut women out of the picture. In many cases, they are excluded from owning land, with the rights being allocated to men as the heads of households.
Hearing from women – who often have little role in community governance – usually requires a more concentrated effort than just inviting them to meetings. Consultations on land deals must involve ongoing assessments of how women can access and participate in discussions and decision-making.
As women are often unrecognized as rights holders, a critical question should be: “Who uses this land and gains value from it?” Asking the right questions will ensure women’s work on the land and their use of it is made more visible, and therefore makes it more likely that their voices will be heard during decision-making processes.
Yet investors and industry have never before been better positioned to make socially responsible land investments. Best practices for equitable, transparent, mutually beneficial / multilateral benefit-sharing and less-risky deals are now better understood than ever. National governance frameworks and their implementation are improving as well. The FAO Voluntary Guidelines have served as an influential benchmark for over six years. Other international standards (e.g. IFC Performance Standards, UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights), including commodity standards (e.g. RSPO for palm oil) and implementation guides (including those developed by the FAO, AFD & CTFD, the Interlaken Group, and others) are available and highly informative. The guides are remarkably consistent and comprehensive.
The standards and guidance describe the best practices needed for socially responsible investment in land. First, consultation and engagement between companies and local men, women, and communities (and government) should focus on including and hearing women’s voices when it comes to the use and rights of land and natural resources. Second, investors should identify and recognize statutory, customary, secondary, seasonal, and other uses and rights, with a particular and critical focus on women. Moreover, potential direct and indirect environmental, social, human rights, and gender impacts should be assessed and adverse impacts should be avoided or, at a minimum, mitigated. The value of foregone livelihoods and other compensation requirements, including resettlement where necessary, should be assessed, with the goal of providing full, fair and equitable compensation at the individual, household and community level. This entails careful consideration of all land uses and interests and a focus on equitable outcomes for women. A level playing field should be created, with transparent negotiations, and fair agreements between communities (including women, men and households), investors and governments. This means that projects should be designed, implemented, monitored, and evaluated to ensure that agreements are implemented and enforced, and that remedies for breach and non-performance are available. Dispute resolution systems provided by the state should be supplemented by investment-specific grievance mechanisms, which should be accessible, certain, sustainable, and effective in delivering remedies. These should be accessible to women and should facilitate their ability to articulate complaints and obtain redress. In support of these practices, community and individual capacity should be built to enable women, men, and communities, to understand and participate in a meaningful way. An emphasis on women is always required to reach and benefit them.
For some businesses and investors, implementing best practices can be challenging. Many national and regional companies are often unaware of them, and national government frameworks may not call for them. Another hurdle is the lack of available expertise and experience – grounded in emerging-market geographic experience – in legal, social, and livelihood issues linked to land and gender. Even lenders and companies that have committed to best land practices face challenges in filling the expertise gaps. Such services are rarely offered by traditional corporate service providers (accounting, legal, labour, health and safety, environmental).
One path to obtaining this much-needed expertise is to collaborate with local civil society organizations (CSOs). Their existing missions and programs often make them good candidates to work with both private sector and government to identify and clarify women and men’s rights and interests, facilitate their meaningful input to land and resource investments and support increased accountability and parity in negotiations. They can also monitor and enforce the terms and conditions of agreements between businesses, land and natural resource rights holders.
Investors who embrace best practices in agricultural land acquisitions are more likely to earn and maintain their social license. They can do so by applying the practices in a way that reflects local realities and that makes the most of local talent – CSOs can be an important resource. Doing this will call for a significant ESG effort, all whilst maintaining a strong focus on women.