Blog / Sept. 15, 2015

Pushing land grabs up the anti-corruption agenda

At last month’s International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Malaysia, I co-hosted a panel on land grabbing and corruption with Transparency International. This global annual event gathers together governments, civil society, enforcement agencies, journalists and others to discuss ways of tackling corruption. This year’s IACC focused on ending impunity – a problem which has helped make land grabbing prolific and very hard to tackle.

Issues of land and corruption are intricately linked. Over the last decade increasing commercial demand for land has made the sector more vulnerable to corrupt abuse by those in a position to own or control land. The stakes have been raised over land not only in relation to large-scale land acquisitions, but also for who gets to register their title and secure their rural or urban land in the first place. The social and environmental fall-out has been significant, with millions of people turfed off land that they have traditionally lived on or farmed, and forests and eco-systems flattened through the industrialisation of land use.

Tackling land grabbing effectively requires addressing the corruption that pervades the allocation and governance of land. The trouble is that too often experts working on land grabbing and corruption do so in siloes. The framing and terminology used by these two groups differ greatly, and both pursue different national and international processes. Our IACC panel was an attempt to bridge that gap.

Corruption enables land grabbing in a number of ways. It can be simply transactional – when government officials accept bribes from a company to gain access to land, or to look the other way if they’re behaving badly. When it gets trickier is when corruption is endemic, and institutionalised within government. This means that policies and central state functions are skewed so that leaders can enrich themselves at the expense of the public good. In situations like that government decisions about land use aren’t based on recognition of rights, on sustainable development or long-term economic growth – land is handed to whoever has the best connections or is willing to pay the highest price. Perversely, this then feeds further corruption. Judges often require bribes to make the “right” decision when victims try using the courts to get their land back. While land, once grabbed, provides revenues to business and political elites, which consolidates their power even further.

Land is different from other natural resources because it’s more than just a factor of production - it’s self-identity. It’s where ancestors are buried, it’s a place of spiritual worship and most of all, it’s home. So when people lose their land because of corruption, the socio-economic impacts are only the start.

I presented two case studies from Cambodia which illustrate examples of grand corruption by business and political elites to grab land from local communities, but also to corrupt the judicial and accountability mechanisms those communities would rely on to access justice and compensation, or even simply to have their grievances heard.

The panel also heard from Transparency International (TI) in Papua New Guinea about how companies are colluding with corrupt government officials to acquire massive swathes of local peoples’ land, ironically through a land allocation system which was intended to protect community land rights. TI Kenya presented on the complexity of land ownership and systems of tenure holdings, which are extremely vulnerable to corruption, enabling elites to acquire and hide their ownership of land through shell companies.

The TI chapter in Honduras discussed how insecure urban land rights were open to fraud, and stressed the importance of not only campaigning for better laws, but also better law enforcement. Finally, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO) gave us an overview of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Forests and Fisheries as a new tool to improve land governance and tackle corruption.

It was encouraging to hear land grabbing mentioned on panel after panel at this year’s ‘Ending Impunity’ IACC. The impunity granted to political and business elites as a result of grand corruption can so infect society that it can be hard to know where to start. But what gave me hope and inspiration to take the next steps were the words of delegate Shaazka Beyerle that corruption is a system - we can get disheartened trying to destroy the whole thing, but even the smallest, everyday step to try and disrupt it is a worthwhile starting point.