Should multinationals have more land rights than indigenous peoples?

2 August 2013

In many parts of the world, dubious land deals between governments and multinationals increasingly leave indigenous and tribal peoples with painful evictions from their ancestral lands and livelihoods. They consistently pay the highest price for land grabbing when there is no political will to protect them. This needs to change. Governments must ratify the ILO convention 169 that seeks to protect indigenous and tribal peoples land rights while companies must start adopting the “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in mitigating and remedying abuses associated with their land acquisitions.

In Mindanao, the Philippines (where Fairfood is active with its ‘Land of Promise’ Pineapple Campaign), land grabbing affects indigenous people disproportionately. Although the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act(IPRA) was intended to recognise their land rights, it is still unable to fully protect them from land grabbing. In fact, under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), multinationals are supposed to be denied ownership of land in the Philippines. However, they have been allowed to acquire lands as long as it is cleverly designated for “development” and not agrarian expansion.

Mindanao is but one example where it appears that multinationals have more rights to land than indigenous and tribal peoples. One of the growing movements for tribal people – Survivial International – details several tribes whose lands and livelihoods are being crushed by illegal corporate invaders;  what is worse, this invasion of land rights is increasingly extending to “uncontacted tribes” like the “uncontacted Indian tribes in Peru”.

In March 2013, two hundred Cambodian villagers filed a complaint in the UK against sugar giant Tate & Lyle over land grab from one of its suppliers. The villagers claim that they were evicted from their land with violence and that they lost their homes and properties.

Palm oil production is also frequently linked to land grabbing. In Indonesia, which produces almost 50% of palm oil on the global markets, companies are required to consult with and share benefits with communities. However, according to campaigners, this isn’t happening. Villagers are instead subjected to violence and intimidation and become embroiled in longstanding conflicts with companies. An NGO active in the sector reports that 632 communities have clashed with palm oil operators since 2006, mostly because of a lack of community consultation.

The ILO convention 169 is the only legally binding international instrument that seeks to protect indigenous and tribal peoples, especially their lands, but since 1991, only 22 countries have ratified this convention. By the same token, the UN Guiding Principles are not yet widely on the agenda of companies especially in the food and beverage sector and even for those that have taken notice; the Guiding Principles are not yet clearly operationalized.

Ownership or control over land is obviously indispensable for food production. But as a society, we need to work out a way to feed our growing population while still respecting the rights of vulnerable and poor people in food supply chains. We cannot continue to indiscriminately trample on the land rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. They are part of the food system and governments and multinationals must respect their rights.

As an advocate for sustainability in the food and beverage sector, Fairfood International will continue to play a role in bringing this issue on the agenda of companies and, together with our strategic partners, will help in demystifying  the UN Guiding Principles for communities and food companies worldwide.

Photo by:
arantxamex (CC License)