28 January 2019

The lines between deontological and utilitarian ethics have recently become increasingly blurred in many instances. However, the differences between the two approaches still seem to be irreconcilable with respect to large-scale land acquisitions (LSLA). Norms-based deontologists label LSLA as ‘land grabbing’ pointing to detrimental effects such as displacement and dispossession in rural areas. Utilitarians, on the contrary, refer to LSLA as ‘land investments’ stressing the potentiality of such investments to improve land management and productivity, create jobs and so on.

In order to understand whether there is a potential for the two standpoints to converge in a foreseeable future, interviewed Stefan Mann, Department Leader Socioeconomics at the Research Station Agroscope of the Swiss Federal Office of Economics. Dr. Mann co-authored a recent study on Grabbing or investment? On judging large-scale land acquisitions and is involved in a number of research initiatives on sustainability of agri-food systems, in particular in the global South.

Mr. Mann, do you think there is a potential for the two perspectives to converge on the issue of LSLA? Overall, would such a convergence be desirable?

I do not think it is as simple as this. Utilitarians will have good reasons to reject many large-scale investment projects in the global South, because they clearly decrease total utility through displacement and exploitation, whereas innovative approaches that prioritize human rights in their agenda may be embraced by deontologists. But I agree that both approaches will help us differentiate. It is not done to bitch about agricultural investments because the investor comes from a different nation. We need carefully developed terms of reference for every single project, and both utilitarian and rights-based frameworks will help us to develop them.

On the one hand, rural inhabitants in Africa, Latin America, Central Europe and former Soviet countries are often ‘pushed aside’ of land tenure. On the other, investors implement their own sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies in these regions. Do you think this sort of compensation is just and justified? Do LSLA contribute to overall sustainable development by systemic implications such as inclusiveness, provision of R&D services, democratic deliberation of agricultural policies, innovative land governance schemes, sustainable use of natural resources, etc.?

I would not call it ‚compensation‘. We have to be aware that the governments in countries in which LSLA are taking place are often very weak. In many cases, their legal framework on land management has been somewhere between lax and non-existing. International governance schemes are probably the only choice we have today to distinguish between unsustainable abuses of Southern land and value-generating, inclusive approaches that we need.

What is the role of nation states in LSLA? What are the tendencies with respect to governance of LSLA?

On the one hand, I doubt that we should call for stronger national governments in these times. On the other hand, not every roundtable for sustainable land management is equally balanced and trustworthy. We should probably invest more energy to give international organizations, particularly under the United Nation’s roof, more possibilities to issue binding guidelines and encourage our national governments to make these guidelines mandatory if goods from such projects are to be imported.

Beside governments, there are different stakeholder groups in the host countries, such as local authorities, NGOs, local farmers, rural inhabitants, academia and others. Do their perceptions of large outside investors coming to their regions differ from each other?

People on the ground recognize rather quickly if investment projects broaden or limit their leeway to make a decent living. I trust local NGOs much more to realistically describe the effects of an investment than I trust Northern NGOs who rely on clear messages if they want to collect donations. Yes, perceptions on the ground differ, but not as much as one would expect.

Land investors differ by their strategies, business models and approaches. Is any type of investors particularly prone to invest responsibly? Is there any broad evidence of responsible large-scale land-based investments?

Among North American and Western European consumers, there is a strong and growing demand for social and environmental responsibility. This translates to companies targeting these regions: they know that they have to play to certain rules. I see two main priorities: One, to convince the international community that global trade should always regard some minimum environmental and social standards. And two, that these standards are no greenwashing, but really improve the lives of the weakest parts of our global village. Maybe the evidence of responsible LSLA is yet small. But it exists, and we should actively nourish it!