The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) is seeking a Legal or Policy Researcher and a Senior Legal Researcher to work on our Land, Agriculture & Food Systems portfolio of projects.
Agricultural Land Investment Contracts (ALIC)
I recommend that ALIC put forward that investment in land should be subject to a comprehensive human rights impact assessment and that all on-going effects, responsibilities, and duties be continuously monitored. The task would then be to spell out what a comprehensive human rights report should comprise.
A sustainability objective will foreground sustainability-based assessment in lieu of a traditional impact assessment mode which is founded on the triple bottom line approach. Centering ‘sustainability’ as a key objective, also, makes a no-contract decision a necessary option when it is shown that a prospective project endangers the environment or at-risk-ecosystems. This option appears not to have been considered in the Guide. The Guide on ALIC provides an opportunity to rethink land use agreements from the ground-up.
Treating climate change as a small subset of environmental issues which are then treated as if they can be balanced against economic or social concerns is highly problematic in a time of climate crisis. It is to be hoped that the final text of the ALIC Zero Draft will endeavour to more seriously grapple with the implications of climate crisis for agricultural land investment contracts, and pay close attention to the findings of the IPCC CCLR.
The Guide should better take into account that land deals and their potential negative impacts go beyond contract law, and require a more consistent incorporation of human rights and environmental law. Even though strengthening legal frameworks and standards at national and international level might be outside of the Guide’s scope, it needs to be clear about the institutional and legal context that is required to protect and guarantee human rights, as well as the importance of cooperation between states, including needed regulations in commercial and administrative law at national and international levels.
In the grander scheme of things, amidst the crisis of climate change in which the vulnerability of Africa continues to unravel, Africa remains a preferred choice of FDI in agriculture for the export of green energy and for food. This situation raises concerns about displacements, conflicts, shrinking traditional landraces and continental food security writ large. The traction for agricultural FDI comes through the scheme of large scale agricultural land acquisitions, which activists framed as agricultural “land grabs”.
This commentary considers the access to food component of the draft UNIDROIT/FAO/IFAD Legal Guide on Agricultural Land Investment Contracts (Guide) and voices its silence on intellectual property rights (IPRs). In the past decade, foreign investors have increased the number of investments in the long-term lease of arable land, especially in Africa, and in the Global South, generally. The reasons for the choice of these locations include the availability of large portions of inexpensive agricultural land, inexpensive local labour and favourable climatic conditions for crop production. The Guide proposes more responsible investments in agriculture from public and private sector investors as a way to achieve, inter alia ‘No Poverty’ and ‘Zero Hunger’ (Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2).
Unfortunately, the Guide appears to be blind to the way in which conceiving land and tenure rights in the context of global vale chains can multiply the relevant spaces of engagement and challenges the traditional notion of jurisdictional spaces and fragmentation. Luckily, communities, activists and lawyers acting on the ground have come to this realization long ago, and I believe that they will find the best way to use a document that aims to normalize large-scale investments but can also open new interesting spaces for political and legal resistance.
By bringing forward this interlegal sensibility, ALIC invites the investor to think of their own best interest in broad term and to take the time to understand already-existing, pluralist socio-legal expectations and practices. It also implicitly reminds the investor to take the time to build a relationship with local communities that is buttressed by an iterative understanding of fairness (a core tenet of commercial law). Without such a relationship and appropriate due diligence, ALIC in effect recommends to the investor and the local community to not pursue the deal – no one benefits from a land transaction that is only made possible by disrupting local people’s lives or dislocating them from their homeland.