Land Grabbing

Since 2008, the term “land grabbing” gained notoriety around the globe. It refers to large-scale land acquisitions mainly by private investors but also by public investors and agribusiness that buy farmland or lease it on a long-term basis to produce agricultural commodities. These international investors, as well as the public, semi-public or private sellers, often operate in legal grey areas and in a no man’s land between traditional land rights and modern forms of property. In many cases of land grabbing, one could speak of a land reform from above, or of the establishment of new colonial relationships imposed by the private sector.

The IAASTD covers the problem of unfair distribution of land, which has existed for many centuries, as well as approaches to agrarian reforms and communal land use. Its key message is simple: Secure land tenure, property rights and other forms of common ownership, including access to water, are an essential prerequisite for family farms to invest in their own future. They provide the basis for all forms of sustainable development and land cultivation."Large inequities in the tenure and access to land and water have exacerbated economic inequalities that still characterized many world regions in the world. Land reform, including improved tenure systems and equitable access to water are suggestive means to support sustainable management and simul­taneously respond to social inequalities that inhibit eco­nomic development.“ (Synthesis, p. 32) There is hardly any other economic sector with so little transparency as in the area of land ownership. Even in times of Google Maps, a global land register is still a long way off. History often plays a key role: Past social and economic systems, ideologies, tribal rights and gender privileges, as well as scars of war and displacement, remain visible. The power over land registers is still today not granted by courts in all parts of the world but often seized violently by both private and public actors."The complex social and political contradictions of colonial and post-independence land policies have increasingly derogated the land rights of the poor, fuelling popular demands for land reforms.“ (Sub-Saharan Africa, p.17)

Gobal land rush in countries with weak governance

Since 2009, the Land Matrix, a joint independent land-monitoring initiative of civil society, intergovernmental organizations and research institutes, has collected key information regarding land grabbing. For example, it shows that almost nine percent of Africa’s total area of arable land has changed owners since 2000. The largest land acquisitions are concentrated in countries with weak governance structures. In these countries, the proportion of hunger and malnutrition in the population is also very high, for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. >>more

Facts & Figures

Only 9% of the agricultural projects listed by the Land Matrix in November 2018 (total area 40.98 million hectares) were exclusively destined for food production. 38% of the area was intended for non-food crops and 15% for the cultivation of flex-crops that can be used for biofuels and animal feed, as well as food. The remaining land was intended for the cultivation of different crops at the same time.

Since the year 2000, foreign investors have acquired 26.7 million hectares of land around the globe for agriculture, according to a Land Matrix report that covers 1,004 concluded agricultural deals. Africa accounts for 42% of the deals, and 10 million hectares of land. Land acquisitions are concentrated along important rivers such as the Niger and the Senegal rivers, and in East Africa.

For the decade spanning 2007-2017, GRAIN has documented at least 135 farmland deals intended for food crop production that backfired. They represent a massive 17.5 million hectares, almost the size of Uruguay. These are not failed land grabs, since the land almost never goes back to the communities, but failed agribusiness projects. Failed land grabs for agricultural production peaked in 2010, but they are on the rise again since 2015.

Despite a history of customary use and ownership of over 50% of the world’s land area, indigenous peoples and local communities – up to 2.5 billion women and men – possess ownership rights to just one-fifth of the land that is rightfully theirs. The remaining five billion hectares remain unprotected and vulnerable to land grabs from more powerful entities like governments and corporations.

Of the 10.3 million farms in the EU, two thirds (65.4%) are less than 5 hectares in size. In 2016, they worked just 6.1% of the EU's utilized agricultural area. In contrast, large farms (100 hectares and above), representing just 3.3% of the total number of farms, controlled half (52.2%) of all farmed land. The 7% of farms that were of 50 hectares or more in size worked a little over two-thirds (68.1%) of the EU's utilized agricultural area.

Land ownership in Europe has become highly unequal, in some countries reaching proportions similar to Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines – all notorious for their unequal distribution of land and land-based wealth.

Land investors appear to be targeting countries with poor governance in order to maximize profit and minimize red tape. Analysis by Oxfam shows that over three-quarters of the 56 countries where land deals were agreed between 2000 and 2011 scored below average on four World Bank governance indicators: Voice and Accountability, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law and Control of Corruption.

A study of the economic impact of land grabbing on rural livelihoods estimates that the total income loss for local communities is $34 billion worldwide, a number comparable to the $35 billion loaned by the World Bank for development and aid in 2012. The study looked at the 28 countries most targeted by large-scale land acquisitions and used data from the Land Matrix database.

Behind the current scramble for land is a worldwide struggle for control over access to water. In recent years, Saudi Arabian companies have acquired millions of hectares of land overseas to produce food to ship back home. The country does not lack land for food production; what’s missing is water for irrigation.


  • Land Matrix is an independent land monitoring initiative that collects data on large-scale land acquisitions
  • contains daily news reports about the global rush to buy up or lease farmland
  • Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. FAO, 2012
  • RAI Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems developed by CFS
  • International Land Coalition is a global alliance of organizations, working together to promote secure and equitable access to land for rural people
  • IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) offers news and publications on land acquisitions and rights

Civil Society

  • GRAIN works to support small farmers in their struggles for land
  • FIAN addresses land grabbing from a right to food perspective
  • Oakland Institute is committed to increasing transparency about land deals
  • Friends of the Earth Europe campaigns to stop the drivers of land grabbing
  • Transnational Institute on land and water grabbing
  • Oxfam's Grow campaign also focuses on land grabs
  • La Via Campesina is the international movement of millions of peasants, landless people, women farmers and indigenous peoples
  • Land Rights Now is an international alliance campaign to secure indigenous and community land rights


Videos: Land Grabbing

Oxfam clip: A beginner's guide to land grabs

Seeds of discontent

This film shows what land grabbing means to affected communities in Mozambique


Land Matrix: Global map of investments


Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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