Understanding growing pressures on land: 'land grabbing' and beyond

Land is central to livelihoods, culture and identity for millions of people across the developing world. But there is growing concern that people's connection to their land is being undermined by large-scale agribusiness and extractive industry investments in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Began April 2008
Lorenzo Cotula

Principal researcher and head of law, economies and justice programme

Law, economies and justice
A collaborative programme of work on renegotiating the law to promote fairer, more sustainable economies
A sign protesting against development

A community protests against illegal land development in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia (Photo: James Anderson, World Resources Institute via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Changing world food and commodity prices as well as government concerns about longer term national food and energy security have fostered a recent wave of large-scale land deals for agribusiness investments.

Petroleum and minerals are now being extracted in areas that had previously been marginal in commercial terms. And with the global food price hike of a few years ago, millions of hectares of land were acquired for plantation agriculture. More recently, deal making has slowed due to changing commodity prices, but most analysts expect pressures on resources to increase in the longer term.

Some commentators have welcomed this trend as a bearer of new livelihood opportunities in lower-income countries. But researchers, activists and grassroots groups have raised concerns about the ‘development pathway’ being pursued, and how the costs and benefits from commercial investments have been distributed in practice.

The law plays an important role in facilitating investment processes. From traditional authorities reinterpreting their prerogatives to allocate customary land to outside investors; to national law reforms easing access to land for commercial operators; through to international investment treaties that protect the resource rights acquired by foreign investors, there are many changes in laws and institutions that profoundly reconfigure resource control.

At the same time, activists in many parts of the world have appropriated the law, and legal rights, to challenge the deals, renegotiate their terms or advance alternative development pathways. 

What is IIED doing?

IIED has generated evidence on changing commercial pressures on land and natural resources. We are collaborating with partner organisations in Africa and Asia and with international institutions, including in the United Nations system.  

Additional resources

Special economic zones: engines of development or sites of exploitation? Lorenzo Cotula, Liliane Mouan (2018), IIED Briefing

Blog: Stopping land and policy grabs in the shadow of COVID-19, by Lorenzo Cotula

Q&A: Law in the natural resource squeeze: 'land grabbing', investment treaties and human rights  

Q&A: Law and political economy of the global resource squeeze: can action rise to the challenge?

Land Rights, International Law and a Shrinking Planet, Lorenzo Cotula (2015), IIED Briefing paper

Large-scale land deals in Ethiopia: scale, trends, features and outcomes to date, James Keeley, Wondwosen Michago Seide, Abdurehman Eid and Admasu Lokaley Kidewa (2014), IIED

Accountability in Africa's land rush: what role for legal empowerment, Emily Polack, Lorenzo Cotula and Muriel Côte (2013) IIED and IDRC, Land, Investment and Rights series | en français

The global land rush: securing a better deal for women, Emily Polack (2013), IIED Briefing paper

Long-term outcomes of agricultural investments: lessons from Zambia, Fison Mujenja and Charlotte Wonani (2012), IIED Land Investment and Rights series

Agricultural investments and land acquisitions in Mali: context, trends and case studies, Moussa Djiré, with Amadou Keita and Alfousseyni Diawara (2013), IIED Land Investment and Rights series | en français

Joint ventures in agriculture: lessons from land reform projects in South Africa, Edward Lahiff, Nerhene Davis and Tshililo Manenzhe (2012), IIED Land Investment and Rights series | en français

Community-investor business models: lessons from the oil palm sector in East Malaysia, Fadzilah Majid Cooke, Sumei Toh and Justine Vaz (2011), IIED, Land Investment and Rights series | en français

Q&A: Fadzilah Majid-Cooke on land rights and agricultural investments in Southeast Asia

The global land rush: what the evidence reveals about scale and geography, Lorenzo Cotula and Emily Polack (2012), IIED Briefing paper

Agricultural land acquisitions: a lens on Southeast Asia, Emily Polack (2012), IIED Briefing paper

Farms and funds: investment funds in the global land rush, Abbi Buxton, Mark Campanale and Lorenzo Cotula (2012), IIED Briefing paper

Biomass energy: another driver of land acquisitions? Lorenzo Cotula, Lynn Finnegan and Duncan Macqueen (2011), IIED Briefing paper

Are land deals driving 'water grabs'?, Jamie Skinner and Lorenzo Cotula (2011), IIED Briefing paper

Land deals in Africa: what is in the contracts?, Lorenzo Cotula (2011) IIED Land, investment and rights series | en français

Why it makes more sense to invest in farmers than in farmland, Lorenzo Cotula (2010), IIED Sustainable development opinion papers

Alternatives to land acquisitions: agricultural investment and collaborative business models, Lorenzo Cotula and Rebeca Leonard (2010), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Making the most of agricultural investment: a survey of business models that provide opportunities for smallholders, Lorenzo Cotula and Sonja Vermeulen (2010), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa, Lorenzo Cotula, Sonja Vermeulen, Rebeca Leonard and James Keeley (2009), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Biofuels, land access and rural livelihoods in Mozambique, Isilda Nhantumbo and Alda Salomão (2010), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Biofuels, land access and rural livelihoods in Tanzania, Emmanuel Sulle and Fred Nelson (2009), IIED, Land, investment and rights series

Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people's access to land, Lorenzo Cotula, Nat Dyer and Sonja Vermeulen (2008), IIED

Legal empowerment for local resource control: Securing local resource rights within foreign investment projects in Africa, Lorenzo Cotula (2007), IIED, Land, Investment and Rights series

Further reading

'Land grabbing' and international investment law: toward a global reconfiguration of property?, Lorenzo Cotula (2016), chapter in the Yearbook on International Investment Law & Policy, Oxford University Press 

Addressing 'legacy' land issues in agribusiness investments, Lorenzo Cotula, Thierry Berger and Philippine Sutz (2016), LEGEND analytical paper

LEGEND Land Policy Bulletin: issue 1. Why land governance? (2015), LEGEND analytical paper

Addressing the human rights impacts of 'land grabbing', Lorenzo Cotula (2014) European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights

Testing claims about large land deals in Africa: findings from a multi-country study (PDF), article in the Journal of Development Studies, Taylor and Francis Group

The great African land grab? Agricultural investments and the global food system, Lorenzo Cotula (2013), Zed books

The international political economy of the global land rush: a critical appraisal of trends, scale, geography and drivers, Lorenzo Cotula (2012), article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, Taylor and Francis Group

'Land grabbing' in the shadow of the law: legal frameworks regulating the global land rush, Lorenzo Cotula (2012), chapter in The Challenge of Food Security: International Policy and Regulatory Frameworks, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.