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Land grab – a term that calls to mind bulldozers, coils of razor wire, and families forced from their homes.

While these scenarios do play out, most land grabs are more subtle. Many are identified when it’s too late, after observing the negative effects of a project on the local population.

In fact, land grabs often arise in unforeseen ways: leasing land from a government, without realizing that there are people already using that land; providing the agreed compensation to a community representative who turns out not to represent the community; contracting with outgrowers to cultivate sugar on land that they previously used to grow food for their families. Although technically within the bounds of the law, these scenarios have potentially adverse impacts on local people’s land rights and livelihoods.

As land grabs have increasingly been recognized as a business risk, companies are prioritizing local land rights as part of their responsible investment and sourcing plans, including committing to respect land rights by adopting, for example, zero tolerance policies for land grabs throughout their supply chains. This mirrors global standard setting that calls for practices that go beyond the letter of law in many places.

To help businesses manage risk and honor commitments to respect land rights, the SMETA 6.0 audit tool incorporates land rights in its updated set of measurement criteria, which boil down to three main questions:

  • Is the company obtaining and using the land legally?
  • Does the company have a land rights policy?
  • Does the company have procedures for implementing key elements of the land rights policy?

But how does a company ensure they can answer “yes” to each of these questions? Through Landesa’s work with companies to help implement land rights commitments, we’ve learned a number of concrete steps companies can take to adopt strong policies and procedures to protect land rights in practice.

  • Companies must know how to identify the range of land rights holders and users that will be impacted by their operations. Often, a company will need to go beyond the government land registry to make this determination. Policies and practices should include a due diligence process regarding the land documentation as well as procedures to otherwise identify land rights holders when documentation is insufficient.
  • For a project to run smoothly, a company must obtain both legal and social license. To ensure the first, policies and practices should include a prohibition on illegal land acquisition, and companies should understand the relevant legal, institutional and administrative frameworks before proceeding with a land transaction. To ensure the second, the investor must guarantee transparent community engagement following the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).  Policies and practices must include an assessment of the potential impacts of a proposed project on the local community and the flexibility to reconfigure the project to avoid or at least mitigate negative impacts. Policies must also lay out a system of engaging with the communities and the individuals within it to consult, share information, negotiate, and contract.
  • Successful implementation of land rights policies and successful retention of social license obtained through community engagement requires a monitoring Successful policies will designate particular people, documentation and information management systems, and communications channels to carry out and monitor these steps. Companies should also ensure that a transparent and well-communicated grievance system is available and accessible to the internal and external stakeholders.
  • Where a company has questions about these steps or does not have the internal capacity to carry them out, consult with relevant experts about how to create and operationalize these sorts of systems.

A robust land rights policy promotes sustainable solutions for business and communities – an environment where local people and investors can thrive.

Speaker Bio

Laura Eshbach is an attorney specializing in land tenure issues and Program Manager of Corporate Engagement at Landesa, an international non-governmental organization that fights poverty and provides opportunity and security for rural poor women, men, and communities through the power of land rights. For more than 40 years, Landesa has engaged in issues touching land-related investments, acquisitions, disputes, and resettlement, and began working directly with corporations in 2010. Leveraging her 10+ years of experience in law, human rights, and international development, Laura works directly with Landesa’s corporate clients to reduce risk by assisting in creating commitments to more responsible investments and integrating land rights protections into business operations and supply chains. She has an LL.M. in Sustainable International Development from the University of Washington School of Law, a J.D. from DePaul University College of Law, and a B.A. from the University of North Carolina.


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