land rights: development or exploitation?

At what point are you exploiting someone or a group of people? This was a question which kept cropping up at It is a question which you can ask yourself in all sorts of situations, but this one was more specific. This one was about land rights.

Working in a developing country throws up lots of questions about how to acquire land and the ethics behind it. There is often still a divide between the law and the cultural and social norms. Colonial rulers imposing law which was later adopted during the post colonial period conflicting with what the rural people expect.

This is even more pronounced in the rural areas. Commercial agriculture has been getting more and more interested in the African continent. The rise in commodity prices in 2007/08 and the realisation that the population of the world is growing, suddenly made investment in agriculture in the relatively undeveloped African continent extremely attractive. There have been a whole host of positive aspects, such as employment, which have come out of this investment. Unfortunately, there have been a whole host of negatives as well.

Often, the Government has encouraged the investment in order to reduce unemployment and attract investment to the country. However, despite this, local acceptance is often needed. Negotiating with the locals is complex and tends to be where most of the problems arise.

In the commercial operation we worked at, there were significant and on going negotiations. There were villagers wanting free items from the company and occasional protests at what they saw as the occupation of the land.

This is what made us think. A poor, rural village against a large Western company supported by the Government. It is a situation which has been replayed hundreds of times, and you can probably guess who wins. One of the key problems here is the different levels of education. That may sound patronising but it is a truth.

It is so easy to get advice from a law firm. All you have to do is sign up and pay. The same firm will also help with finding translators – often highly educated – to help with the negotiation as well as any support the company may need. Companies may complain about the difficulties of working in developing countries, but ultimately, if you are able to pay it is not difficult. The only difficulty is the cultural contrast which is often related to speed.

In comparison, the villagers had never been involved in a legal process and were only given support from the Government – a Government which supports the company.

As the company negotiates, it talks about the jobs, the schools and the medical facilities. All these are fantastic. And ultimately we truly believe that in many cases, these are provided with the best intentions. We are not suggesting that all companies are out there to exploit.

The problem is, it is often tacit exploitation. How are people who live in a rural location, many who have not travelled further than the nearest town supposed to work through all the consequences of this new agricultural holding? In an area where common land usage has been prevalent for hundreds if not thousands of years, it can be hard to envisage the fences going up.

So what can be done?

Well, this is hard. There will always be a disparity of knowledge, money and experience. How we resolve this issue is hard to work out and many people are working on it.

But, having seen it in action, we can only say that the consequences were very mixed. It was far too late when some of the villages turned around and said they preferred it how it was. That they wanted their land back. Suddenly the police are involved and arguments and recriminations start being thrown around.

The cultural environment is so different, a new model may need to evolve. Western capitalism is not always suitable. Some of these people need more help, the rent they receive (fixed and agreed at the beginning of the process) is not always enough to compensate for the change in their lives and culture.

Development in its traditional sense did seem rather broken in this particular experience.

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