Press release | Nov. 15, 2016

New report examines how corruption is fuelling widespread land grabbing and human rights abuses

A new report launched today takes the most comprehensive look to date at how corruption is fuelling the global land grabbing crisis, which has seen millions of people displaced from their homes and farmland.

Tainted Lands, authored by Professor Olivier De Schutter, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and leading human rights organizations Global Witness and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), calls on companies and governments to ensure that land deals are transparent, are corruption-free, and protect the rights of local communities.

”As demand for food, fuel, and commodities increases pressure on land, companies are all too often striking deals with corrupt State officials without the consent of the people who live on it,” said Professor De Schutter. ”The last decade has seen an upsurge in land grabs for industries like mining, logging, agribusiness, and infrastructure projects, with local communities rarely consulted or compensated.”

At worst, these land seizures are fatal. According to Global Witness data, in 2015, an average of more than three people each week were killed defending their land against theft and the ruinous impacts of industry – the deadliest year on record.

Corruption enables land grabbing in a number of ways. It can be simply transactional – when state officials accept bribes from a company to gain access to land, for example. It can also be institutionalised – when decision-making in state bodies such as the police, judiciary, or executive is skewed so that business or political elites can ignore national laws to seize land without facing the consequences.  

“What this report makes clear is that any efforts to end land grabbing must also tackle corruption, as the two tend to co-exist and are mutually reinforcing,” said Josie Cohen, Senior Land Campaigner with Global Witness. “Disturbingly, what we’re seeing is that investors seeking large-scale land acquisitions appear to be targeting countries that suffer high levels of corruption. Meanwhile, corruption is distorting the outcomes of government and aid programmes designed to help communities gain security over their lands, resulting in millions of land grab victims across the world.”

The impacts can be devastating. An investigation published in 2015 laid bare the impacts of corrupt land grabs in northeastern Myanmar, where the military colluded with government officials and private companies to seize 1,800 hectares of land. More than 22,000 villagers were affected and are now suffering from food shortages. One farmer explained, ”We were not rich before. We were not poor either. We could survive on our land. But now with less land, life has become very difficult.”

Another exposé revealed how Vietnamese rubber companies used close ties to corrupt political and business elites to establish huge rubber plantations in Cambodia. The companies were also involved in gutting forests of valuable timber, able to ignore land and forest laws thanks to their high-level connections.

Tainted Lands explores existing frameworks that could help protect land rights and tackle corruption, including laws such as the UK Bribery Act and the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The report asserts, however, that much more must be done. It lays out a set of recommendations for governments, companies, and the financial sector. Companies, for instance, need to carry out thorough checks on their supply chains and business partners to ensure they aren’t linked to corruption and human rights abuses. Governments must meanwhile ensure that affected communities are properly consulted and have given their consent before land deals can go ahead.

“Private sector actors and governments need to do far more to ensure that they aren’t driving human rights harms at home or abroad,” said Sara Blackwell, Legal and Policy Coordinator at ICAR. “Not only is the impact on life and livelihood severe, but for companies and investors, becoming embroiled in a corrupt land deal poses major reputational, financial, and legal risks.”

The Tainted Lands report was launched on 15 November 2016 as part of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.



  • Josie Cohen

Notes to editor:

Also available for interview:
 ·     Olivier De Schutter,
       Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food,
       [email protected], +32 488 482 004

·      Sara Blackwell,
       Legal and Policy Coordinator, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable,  
       [email protected], +1 202 758 8209

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