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Whose Land Is It Anyway?

The casket of murdered activist mayor  Hitler Rojas Gonzales killed under mysterious circumstances. Rojas Gonzales opposed construction of the Chadin 2 dam in Peru. Photographer Anonymous

The casket of murdered activist mayor  Hitler Rojas Gonzales killed under mysterious circumstances. Rojas Gonzales opposed construction of the Chadin 2 dam in Peru. Photographer Anonymous

Peru has been much in the news lately. Vast "development" projects like the Chadin 2 dam seek to invest in the Peruvian economy, blithely disregarding the protests of the people, whose land and livelihoods would be wiped out. Gold mining operations, both legal and illegal, are popping up everywhere, shedding mercury into the drinking water of thousands. The people affected have virtually no legal recourse. They have no title to the land they work and live on. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto at the Lima-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy has said, "our problem is a legal system that still does not include the poor."

This problem is not confined to Peru. Halfway across the world, in Nigeria, government officials make deals with Singapore-based Wilmar International to sell the company thousands of hectares of community land and nature reserves (see Exploitation and Empty Promises, an essential report by Friends of the Earth, well worth reading). The projected palm oil plantations will bring jobs, the company says, and yes, they do get some community buy-in, for the region is desperately poor. 

© Environmental Rights Action-Friends of the Earth Nigeria

© Environmental Rights Action-Friends of the Earth Nigeria

But the jobs on offer pay an average 50-70% of the minimum wage in Nigeria; they offer no pension, no job security, no dignity. And many of those affected had absolutely no input into the sale. For the rape of their land, former farmers and shareholders have become disposable migrant labor. "Save Our Souls" indeed. Just as in Peru, the vast majority of them held no formal title to their land. Dispossessing them was easy.

5 billion of the world’s 7 billion people don´t have the documents to live in a particular place. To be precise, they don’t have the legal property rights required to reside, own assets or do business in their own or any other country. (Hernando De Soto in an article in Fortune magazine.

To be sure, there have been attempts to right the balance and give communities a place at the table. Companies are supposed to gather Free Prior and Informed Consent from local communities ahead of breaking ground on a project. Wilmar International has a brand-new corporate social responsibility policy that should have prevented the worst excesses of the land grab in Nigeria. No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation. Sounds good, right? 

But Hernando De Soto, who comes from a distinctly business-friendly place, is onto something. A community's consent is materially undermined by the imbalance of power, by poverty. These companies with so much money behind them basically have the local community over a barrel. Reform of the entire land tenure system is necessary to give local people the power to negotiate. It need not mean that all projects come to a screeching halt - merely that projects are structured fairly. Artisanal miners should be able to make a living off their land, if that is what they choose to do. Farmers should be able to farm and get a fair price for their crops. Vast latifundia of monoculture crops are not the way to go. They degrade the environment, destroy habitat for wildlife and damage economic activity and quality of life for the people. 

Petra Lent

Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods, Rescuing Emmanuel and The Same Heart for Galen Films.