The involvement of European corporate and financial entities in land grabbing

Land grabbing and human rights: The involvement of European corporate and financial entities in land grabbing outside the European Union.
Saturnino M. BORRAS Jr. (International Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands), Philip SEUFERT (FIAN International, Germany), Stephan BACKES (FIAN International, Belgium), Daniel FYFE (FIAN International, Switzerland), Roman HERRE (FIAN Germany, Germany), Laura MICHELE (FIAN International, Germany) and Elyse MILLS (International Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands)

In early research on land grabbing, the initial focus was on foreign companies investing abroad, with a particular focus on those based in countries such as China, Gulf States, South Korea, and India. In recent years, it has become evident that the range of countries land investors originate in is far broader, and includes both North Atlantic – and EU-based actors. In this study, we offer both quantitative and qualitative data illustrating the involvement of EU-based corporate and financial entities in land deals occurring outside of the EU.

This study also analyses the global land rush within a human rights framework, examining the implications of particular land deals involving EU-based investors and their impact on communities living in areas where the investments are taking place. The research presented here builds partly on Cotula’s 2014 study on the drivers and human rights implications of land grabbing, but differs in that it focuses explicitly on particular cases of possible, actual or potential human rights abuses and violations, in the context of activities involving European corporate and financial entities. In our conclusions, we offer a series of recommendations on how the EU can more effectively address these issues.


During the earliest wave of research on land grabbing, the initial focus was on foreign companies, with emphasis on a set of foreign players (China, Gulf States, South Korea, India, and others). (page 12)

The reality is more fluid and complex than what available databases tell us partly because: (a) land grabbing cannot be understood in a static, technical and restrictive way; (b) land grabs are multi-layered and complex processes, in which a land deal involves many actors via investment webs implicating diverse types of public and private actors (which cannot be clearly separated), and “nationality” of land deals is never a straightforward issue; and (c) EU actors are involved in land grabs and related human rights violations at different points in investment webs. (page 7)

There has been comparatively less examination of the role that EU Member States play in the global land grab (19), likely partly because many EU-based investors and companies have multiple foreign subsidiaries that make it difficult to trace their roots directly to the EU. However, companies registered in the EU are engaging in numerous land deals, that, when aggregated, add up to vast amounts of land in developing countries. Companies registered in France and the United Kingdom have been involved in 40 to 124 land deals, respectively – as a result, gaining control of 629 953 to 1 972 010 hectares of land in various countries outside the EU. Corporations registered in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy are not far behind, with 20 to 21 deals each, involving a total of 251 808 to 615 674 hectares of land. (page 14)

It is more adequate to talk about investment webs rather than investment chains. As a result, attributing responsibilities for human rights violations to each of the countries involved becomes a substantive challenge for those in charge of determining accountability and providing remedies (including parliamentary, quasi-judicial and judicial mechanisms). It also hampers the advocacy work of CSOs, grass roots communities and their advocates seeking justice. (page 20)

Major financial capital company players with regard to land grabbing are pension funds. At the end of 2014, total private pension assets in the 34 OECD countries were valued at 38 trillion USD and managed mainly by pension funds (OECD. (…) 29). As for private pension funds or funds that are of a more embroiled construction, EU Member States have the obligation to regulate them in order to avoid that their funding contributes to human rights abuses abroad, and ensuring effective remedy in case of abuses. The Dutch private pension fund ABP is an illustrative case. (page 22)

In recent years, the EU has increasingly shifted towards a private sector-led approach to development, arguing that private sector engagement and funding is an indispensable complement to EU development assistance (EC, 2014). However, so-called partnerships” with the corporate sector carry major risks, in particular when conflicts of interest are not adequately addressed. (…)A study conducted by family farmers’ organizations in Africa concluded that resources are targeted towards industrial agriculture and that PPPs are not an appropriate instrument for supporting the family farms that are the foundation of African food security and sovereignty (EAFF, ROPPA and PROPAC, 2013). (page 30).

At a Hearing on the New Alliance in the Committee for Development (DEVE) in the European Parliament in December 2015, De Schutter presented an expert study, which raises six major concerns regarding the New Alliance, including the fact that within the New Alliance, “speculation over land increases, and so does land concentration: foreign investors are mostly interested in developing large-scale plantations, that are relatively non-labour-intensive and contribute relatively little to rural development; and conflicts over land increase as land becomes a valuable asset” (De Schutter, 2015). (page 30)

In many cases, the number of jobs created in the context of land deals has been considerably below what was promised and communities frequently complain about low wages, long working days, temporary or seasonal employment contracts and poor working conditions in general. (..) Instead of contributing to development – as claimed by many promoters and defenders of large-scale land acquisitions – land deals thus often lead to adverse incorporation of people and communities into increasingly globalised value chains. In many cases, they end up in situations of dependency from one company and complete loss of autonomy, or even infringements against their right to self-determination. (page 37)

Indeed, in cases where human rights abuses and violations have occurred, communities face major difficulties in obtaining adequate and just reparation. Damage done by the respective project and adverse human rights impacts often continue to affect people even after the end of a project and projects usually do not foresee redress and reparation for abuses and violations suffered. (page 38)

One step to avoid harm in other countries is the conduct of prior human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) and the monitoring of the extraterritorial human rights impacts of policies, laws and practices, in particular where the risk of adverse impacts is high. Such assessments must be conducted under public participation, and their results be made public and inform measures to prevent, cease, and remedy the harm (page 42)

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