Recent stories from Burma and Ethiopia illustrate the contentious issues surrounding the large-scale acquisition of land for agricultural production. In Ethiopia, the government may be re-assessing its policy of granting large tracts of land to investors, reducing the size of initial allocations and increasing the scrutiny of investors’ capacity to achieve their proposed plans and fulfill contractual obligations. The Minister of Agriculture, Tefera Derbew, has indicated that once investors demonstrate the capacity to productively manage 5,000 hectares, then the government can reasonably consider the allocation of additional land. While the government favors investment to boost Ethiopia’s commercial agriculture production, it wants to ensure that the land granted to investors is put to productive use.
There are important lessons from Ethiopia for Burma, which is rapidly emerging from two decades of political and economic isolation and increasingly the focus of foreign investment in numerous sectors, including agriculture. The rapid increase in the allocation of land to investors reflects the government’s intent to restore agricultural productivity. The policy of allocating large tracts of land to agricultural investors has raised fears of large-scale displacement of smallholder farmers, exacerbating an existing problem of landlessness in Burma. Nor is it clear whether investors will be able to make full use of allocated land, either due to lack of sufficient resources or the failure to consult and collaborate with affected communities. Displacement and other grievances can generate conflict and thus, inhibit the ability of investors to fully use the allocated land and realize its productive potential.
Basing incremental allocation upon conditions such as engagement with and benefits for surrounding communities and evaluating investors’ demonstrated use of initial allocations according to contractual obligations before allowing additional holdings could help ensure that the large-scale allocation of land to investors benefits host country stakeholders.
For more information, see USAID’s recently published profile on Burma.