Who can grow more food, agribusiness or small farmers? The answer might surprise you | 

land-grabs2Land. A plot of it to call our own. That’s what we all want, isn’t it?

On this week’s podcast, we talk to Darryl Vhugen from Landesa, a rural development think tank. Vhugen has been studying land in the developing world for five years, since the financial collapse in 2008 precipitated a surge in land grabs by investors around the world.

In fact, he just returned from Tanzania, where he was helping the government deal with large investors. Vhugen says that smallholder and peasant farmers are often victimized as officials rush to sell off parcels of land for meager prices. Huge projects – “supersize farms” and the like -  in Ethopia and elsewhere, that sound great on paper, have failed.

So who’s buying up all this land? The answer will probably surprise you. How should governments respond to promises of jobs by investors? Again, the answer’s not so simple. How does climate change affect land value and agriculture?

Can small farmers be as productive as large agribusiness? This is counter-intuitive, but the answer is yes, Vhugen says. And he’s done the research to prove they can even be more productive than large farms, which is important, since we need to feed a growing population. Vhugen’s been from Mozambique to Burma, and he explains how some farmers are earning more than ever before.

Before the interview, Tom Murphy and I discuss this week’s headlines, including transparency in the mineral trade and how the World Food Program is using Facebook to feed the hungry.

Listen below. (And please subscribe and rate the Humanosphere podcast on iTunes – thanks!)

China’s Great Leap towards Rapid Urbanization | 

Here’s the plan. China wants to move 250,000,000 people out of its rural areas and into cities within the next 15 years.

There are 316 million people in the United States. China’s plan is to move nearly as many people as the world’s third most populous country.

To do so, China is undertaking a massive construction effort to expand, improve and build new urban centers. Reporting from the New York Times reveals that the effort to transform the country has the potential to rapidly propel China or saddle it with long term and harmful problems.

Continue reading

Land rights an antidote against ‘land grabbing,’ but maybe not for poverty | 

tumblr_md587vKewg1r7mk8co1_500It is estimated that one billion people living in rural parts of the world do not have rights to their own land.

That means they have no way of either proving that they own the property on which their homes rest or purchasing a deed to the land. Without land rights, it becomes much easier for governments to forcibly evict residents or large companies to buy a family’s property from right under their feet.

There is a direct link between land rights and land grabs, says the IMF. Countries with better governance and land rights laws are less likely to agree to large-scale land purchases by foreign investors.

That makes sense, but the additional claim that smallholder land ownership directly increases family farm productivity and income is now coming under question. Continue reading

Seattle Times profile of Landesa’s work with women farmers in India | 

The Seattle Times, with support from The Seattle International Foundation (also one of my primary funders), has produced a beautiful and in-depth report on the work of Landesa promoting land rights for women in India. It’s a great read, written by Melissa Allison and photographed by Erika Shultz.

Woman farmer in West Bengal
Woman farmer in West Bengal
Seattle Times, Erika Schultz

Landesa has been around a long time, formerly known as as the Rural Development Institute, and was founded by former University of Washington law professor Roy Prosterman (who I’ve had occasion to write about many times before, such as this post called Land Reform and Bulletproof Vests). The Times did a good profile of Roy as well. Erika’s blog as a photographer is also worth a look.

Update: Humanitarian rankers don’t like getting ranked on | 

In case you haven’t been following the comment thread on my earlier post regarding the Top 100 NGOs as identified by Global Journal, I wanted to post here a critical look at the rankings by development professional Dave Algoso.

Dave Algoso

Algoso is an expert on aid and development issues. Here is his post Lies, Damned Lies and Ranking Lists: The Top 100 Best NGOs written in response to my earlier post about Global Journal:

Ranking lists are great publicity for both the rankers and the ranked but they usually involve bad analysis and mislead the readers…. Most of these NGOs are, to the best of my knowledge, quite good. My big disagreement is with GJ‘s ranking methodology. And the fact that they created this list at all.

Meanwhile, the equally well-intentioned folks at Geneva-based Global Journal have expressed, to me by email and in various comment threads, their disappointment at being ‘ranked on’ for publishing their list of the top non-governmental organizations working at making the world a better place.

The editor, Jean-Christophe Nothias, takes special umbrage at being criticized by lowly bloggers and even contends this may involve ‘libel.’ Says Nothias of their rankings:

It is a journalistic approach, not an academic, not a mathematical, one approach that understands a simple fact. Profit has a metric, money. How do you measure solidarity? How do you measure healing, suffering? Do you believe such a ranking has anything to do with the S&P, the NYSE and other financials index?

Right, so how did they do it? How did Global Journal arrive at placing Seattle-based PATH as 6th best NGO in the world — along with ranking a few other local organizations like Mercy Corps and Landesa — and inexplicably exclude other top NGOs like World Vision and the Gates Foundation?

The folks at Global Journal don’t want to go into the details. They appear to be arguing that they didn’t depend solely upon a quantitative methodology that can be checked by others for reliability. They also relied on their journalistic methodology, their own expert judgment, as Nothias says:

Do bloggers have a methodology? Do they make a difference between being a reporter and a rapporteur? Or is journalism, in their eyes, at the cemetery? We have an ethic and a strong belief in the fact that journalism is already part of the methodology.

As a journalist who is also apparently a blogger, I can say with great confidence that the ‘methodology’ and reliability of journalism is highly variable. Ranking, by its very nature, implies some kind of quantitative assessment that should be independent of even the best journalistic judgments.

As far as Algoso is concerned, Global Journal’s list is so arbitrary and subjective it is meaningless:

Ultimately, it sounds like the methodology was: we browsed the web, talked to a couple people, then sat around the conference table arguing among ourselves. Here’s the result. Sorry, guys, but that just doesn’t cut it. That’s not a methodology.

Well, so what? The folks at Global Journal are basically arguing that an imperfect listing is better than no listing.

Algoso disagrees. He notes that many organizations are already using the magazine’s ranking for promotional reasons — for fund-raising, that is. So there’s one obvious downside to Global Journal’s rankings. Should donors not give to World Vision because they aren’t on the list? Says Algoso:

As a development professional, I want to see a more efficient market for funding social causes. That’s an economics-y way of saying that I want funds to flow to those NGOs that can best convert them into positive social impact.

There is a great need to improving the evaluation of impact and effectiveness within the humanitarian, or NGO, community. It’s actually quite difficult to find consensus on the best metrics in this field. Many experts are struggling to come up with the most reliable measures of effectiveness.

In the meantime, people like Algoso think subjective short-cuts to rigorous evaluations may do more harm than good — if only by shifting funding away from those who actually are doing a better job toward organizations that happen to have won a media-sponsored lottery.

Land grab: Ethiopia boots 70,000; Brits displace 20,000 in Uganda | 

Flickr, IRIN

Displacement action enforced by soldiers

Aid organizations are trying to call attention to a little-noticed but massive plague spreading across Africa that is destroying communities, throwing many deeper into poverty and perhaps causing the deaths of many thousands.

Not AIDS or malaria.

It’s an outbreak of property seizures and community displacements known as the land grab. The forced displacement of 70,000 people in Ethiopia is the latest example of this phenomenon. Human Rights Watch reports that this is being done illegally, and for the benefit of large-scale commercial agriculture.

The news media has a few reports on this, such as UPI’s Thousands Driven Out or BBC’s oddly he-says-she-says report pitting Human Rights Watch against Ethiopian official deniers.

Why doesn’t the BBC just go there to find out for itself? Oh yeah, staff cutbacks. As I’ve noted before, humanitarian organizations are increasingly doing the basic reporting of issues for the incredibly shrinking media overseas.

Last fall, Oxfam International did much the same thing in Uganda, drawing media attention to an ongoing reforestation project operated there by a British firm that the advocacy organization said had prompted the brutal and illegal displacement of 20,000 peasant farmers.

Now, due in part to Oxfam’s criticism and the resulting loss of World Bank support for the development project, the London-based New Forests Company has decided — after displacing the 20,000 farmers and employing some 500 other Ugandans as foresters — to close up the operation and leave.

This is a serious problem. But Oxfam knows you get tired of big, serious problems. So here’s a funny (and somewhat pointed) video on the African land grab from Oxfam, which is one of the leading humanitarian organizations trying to draw attention to this disturbing trend:

For a more serious and focused video report showing Oxfam’s critique of the reforestation project in Uganda, go to this link.

Another organization working to help smallholder farmers and poor communities hold on to their land is Seattle-based Landesa. I’ve written before about Landesa, which tends to take a more low-profile and diplomatic tack to solving this problem.

Landesa has done an excellent overview here describing what’s driving this land rush in poor countries and how we can work to both protect the poor without discouraging commercial investment.

The first step, as always, is to recognize we have a problem. Here’s hoping this issue rises up on the media radar screen. It’s big and it’s not getting the attention it deserves.

Land rush update: Uganda displaces 22,000 poor farmers to plant trees | 

The ongoing trend of foreign investors purchasing massive tracts of land in poor countries isn’t getting much media attention in the U.S., but one case in Uganda may change that.

Oxfam International reported a few weeks ago that the Ugandan government, on behalf of a British company and with financial support from the World Bank, had forcibly removed some 22,000 people in rural communities from their farms in order to transform the land into a massive tree farm.

The project is intended to provide Uganda with carbon credits in the global fight against climate change.

Voice of America, the New York Times and mostly British media have reported on it. The Guardian, which reported on it earlier as well, issued this new video report today. I think Oxfam’s video makes pretty much the same points and it’s half as long.

The Guardian video does mention the death of a child that took place when the mother claims her hut was being burned down by officials. It’s not clear if the death was related to the displacement or not.

The British company, New Forests Company, says it had believed the displacements of the farming communities were legal and voluntary. The firms says it is “puzzled” by the discrepancy between Oxfam’s claims and the official story.

The World Bank has also said it will investigate the allegations. World Bank watchdog Bill Easterly, who I recently interviewed, has started an online clock to track how much time it will take the WB to go from launching its investigation to reaching a determination. (The displacements began two years ago.)

The Guardian also published today a call by the UN’s lead expert on food security, Olivier De Schutter, calling for international action and consensus on how to deal with this trend that is displacing many poor communities, especially in Africa. Here’s Oxfam’s report on “land grabs” in poor countries.

It isn’t that tree farming is, by itself, a bad idea or has to displace locals. Here’s a story about a reforestation project in Burkina Faso that’s being done by the locals — as opposed to foreign investors.

NOTE: A Seattle organization, Landesa (formerly the Rural Development Institute) has been working for decades on improving the land rights of poor people. Read this essay by Landesa’s Zoey Chenitz on how the global land rush has effected women especially.

Oh, and the founder of Landesa, former UW law prof Roy Prosterman, has been named by Global Washington as the recipient of its inaugural Global Hero Award. Here’s an earlier post about Prosterman and his organization. He receives the award officially Nov. 1.

Land reform and bulletproof vests | 


Roy Prosterman

Roy Prosterman might, on first glance, suggest a kindly hobbit.

The retired UW law professor is a friendly, gentle and small (in stature) man who hardly looks like a radical social reformer who could bring on death threats.

Prosterman’s non-profit organization, now called Landesa (formerly RDI, Rural Development Institute), sounds like another group doing something nice, and boring.

But land reform, as it turns out, is hardly boring. Continue reading