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Land deals

Imagine waking up one day to be told by a man from the government that the land that your family has lived and relied on for generations has been leased out to developers. You have to be out by the time the bulldozers arrive next week. You have no right of reply, you can’t see the documents behind the deal, and you won’t be getting compensation. And if you don’t go quietly, soldiers will make you wish you had.

This type of “land-grab” is happening more and more often across the developing world, as national and foreign investors scramble to acquire cheap land for everything from food to biofuel plantations to mining. As much as 49 million hectares has already changed hands in land deals or is under negotiation over the last decade. And this figure is set to grow as population growth, consumption and financial speculation drive demand upwards.

With strong rules to protect communities and environment, these investments could stimulate development in some of the poorest parts of the world. But the market is moving much faster than regulators can leaving behind a murky trade controlled by powerful and often corrupt elites.

Land deals are often done in secret, without consulting those most affected. Environmental damage and human rights are paid lip service at best, and more often completely ignored. Communities can’t find out who has been given their land or see the contracts, so they don’t know what it is worth or who to blame for taking it.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Global Witness’s Dealing with Disclosure report, launched in April 2012, sets out the practical steps that governments and companies need to take to make land deals fair and open. People who live off the land must be consulted and given the chance to refuse investments. They must be able to access information in a way they can understand and use. Then companies and governments can be held to account for how the land is used, and who benefits.

As well as pushing for solutions to fix the system at the international level, Global Witness is also investigating the impact of large-scale land concessions on rural communities and environment in the Mekong region and Liberia.

Rubber Barons, a report and video launched by Global Witness in May 2013, shows how vast amounts of land have been acquired for rubber plantations in Laos and Cambodia by two of Vietnam’s largest companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG). It exposes how these rubber barons are financed by international investors including Deutsche Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the private lending arm of the World Bank.

Cambodia and Laos are not the only countries being targeted by Asia’s booming rubber industry. As neighbouring country Myanmar is poised to open up to foreign investment, the time has never been greater to protect one of the most important remaining ecosystems in the world. In Global Witness’ briefing paper, ‘What Future for Rubber Production in Myanmar?’, recommendations are set out for how the government can support and protect its farmers and remaining valuable forests, whilst avoiding the mistakes of Cambodia and Laos.

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