Land rights and investment treaties

Commercial land concessions may be protected under international investment treaties, with important implications for local land relations. Securing land rights requires tackling these global dimensions.

2014 - 2019
Lorenzo Cotula

Principal researcher and head of law, economies and justice programme, Natural Resources research group

Law, economies and justice
A collaborative programme of work on renegotiating the law to promote fairer, more sustainable economies
aerial view of an oil palm plantation

An aerial view of an oil palm plantation and the edge of the forest near Sentabai Village, West Kalimantan (Photo: Nanang Sujana/CIFOR, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As economic globalisation intensifies and expands its reach, growing global consumption is placing the world's natural resources under unprecedented pressure. Petroleum and minerals are extracted in previously marginal sites, and agribusiness developments have extended their reach, displacing natural habitats and non-intensive land and resource use.

The effects of some 'land grab' deals are now clear to see: lands previously used for common grazing or foraging have been converted to monoculture. More intangible, but equally important changes in international law are shifting the balance between private interests and public authority in competing natural resource claims.

As demand for valuable lands intensifies and land relations become more transnational, struggles over land increasingly rely on international law – creating new opportunities to challenge and demand accountability. For example, indigenous peoples have taken encroachments on their ancestral lands to international human rights bodies.

Meanwhile, international treaties protecting investments can have far-reaching consequences for land relations – whether in the context of redistributive reform or land restitution, or with regards to large-scale land-based investments. 

What did IIED do?

We generated evidence on the linkages between land rights and investment treaties, and fed insights into policy processes at national and international levels.

Additional resources

Blog: Law and Political Economy of Commodity Rushes: Reflections on “Land Grabbing” in the Global South, Lorenzo Cotula (2019), Law and Political Economy blog

Farmland in International Investment Law and Dispute Settlement: Developments in 2017, Lorenzo Cotula, Thierry Berger, chapter in Yearbook on International Investment Law & Policy 2017

Article: Law in the natural resource squeeze: ‘land grabbing’, investment treaties and human rights, Lorenzo Cotula, October 2016

Foreign investment, law and sustainable development: a handbook on agriculture and extractive industries, Lorenzo Cotula (2013, second edition 2016), IIED report, Natural Resource Issues series