Large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) by foreign investors, often referred to as ‘land-grabs’ in the media, have been increasingly witnessed in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia and have sparked much international debate. Rising costs for food and fuel coupled with water scarcity have been the motivation behind those LSLAs and alone since 2006 around 20 million hectares of farmland have been subject to biofuel negotiations in the global south. The investor nations are often largely dependent on import and hope to lower their vulnerability to future price peaks by investing in agricultural land.

farmers group transplanting seeds on their community farm land
Ghana: farmers group transplanting seeds on their community farm land
(Photo credit: Trees for the Future on flickr)

These foreign investments have led to an increased interest in farmland in these regions, but have also raised a number of concerns. Some see the food security of host countries threatened while others fear for the customary rights of the local population. As the news service IRIN reports on their website, dozens of farmers in northern Ghana claim LSLAs have forced them off their land with no alternative source of income. Farmer Adam told IRIN, “There was no consultation with us (farmers) before the land was sold and I have not been paid any compensation since I was displaced”.

However, despite large media debates surprisingly little attention has been paid to the impact on water surrounding LSLAs. The way land is used has a major impact on both quantity and quality of water, which basically means that land investments will consequently impact water resources. In a country, such as Ghana, where water and land resources are governed and managed under separate frameworks room is created for LSLAs that ignore or underestimate water requirements for crops or water rights of the local population.

A catalogue of unethical and inimical practices

Research from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) presented at the Water Integrity Forum in the Netherlands this week addresses lapses in land and water governance systems in Ghana and Mali that create room for practices that are injurious to the interests of poor smallholders and other land users.

“We looked into five cases of recent large-scale land acquisitions for biofuel and food crop production in Ghana and Mali”, says IWMI’s Tim Williams. “We documented a catalogue of unethical and inimical practices that resulted in displacement and involuntary loss of access to land and associated water rights by poor land and water users.

This displacement and lack of compensation had direct negative impacts on household food security and incomes of displaced farmers. The practices also undermined proper assessment of the water requirements of crops and consequences for other users and the ecosystem.

Poor policy coherence

The researchers attributed the lapses that led to these practices to a range of different factors, including parallel systems for administering land and water in the study countries and partly due to poor consistency in policy and coordination of activities across systems. The problems are worsened by a lack of clarity on the regulatory oversight functions of some statutory institutions, a leasehold approval system that avoids important regulatory agencies and customary practices on land transactions that reflect unequal power relationships in local communities; making the traditional councils that for instance own 80% of the customary land in Ghana a part of the problem.

The researchers concluded that some form of new institutional arrangements and complementary measures are needed to promote accountability and transparency in land deals. These new institutional arrangements should be based on an integrated and coordinated input from the different land and water agencies and recognize the rights of existing land and water users. In Ghana, the traditional councils will also need to play a part in the solution due to their traditional roles and political influence.
“The state has a responsibility to set down rules that will guide both buyers and sellers”, says Williams. “Ultimately, the government will need to generate the political will to push through the policy changes and legal reforms that will allow water use and management as well as social and environmental standards to be integrated into future large-scale land acquisition deals in a transparent, equitable and efficient way.”

The Water Integrity Forum is taking place at UNESCO-IHE in Delft from 5-7 June 2013. It is organized by the Water Integrity Network (WIN), Water Governance Centre (WGC) and UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water with the objective to take stock of progress in addressing corruption issues in the water sector, to share knowledge, approaches and experiences, and to build alliances to address integrity challenges in the water sector.

Williams, T.O.; Gyampoh, B.; Kizito, F. and Namara, R. 2012. Water implications of large-scale land acquisitions in Ghana. Water Alternatives 5(2):243-265
F. Kizito, T.O. Williams, M. McCartney and T. Erkossa. 2012. Green and blue water dimensions of foreign direct investment in biofuel and food production in West Africa: The case of Ghana and Mali: In: T. Allan, M. Keulertz, S. Sojamo and J. Warner (eds.). Handbook of Land and Water Grabs in Africa: Foreign Direct Investment and Food and Water Security. Routledge, London. pp.337-358