Land Matrix Initiative: documenting large-scale acquisition

The Land Matrix Initiative is documenting large-scale acquisitions to ensure that local communities are not missing out


  • Cecilia Coccia
  • Angela Harding
  • Danya-Zee Pedra

05 May 2020


Soaring food and fuel prices and the instability of global financial markets have prompted agri-businesses, investment banks, and food- and energy-hungry nations to secure resources in countries where land is available, or is made available, for investment. Given that access to land is closely linked to food security, poverty alleviation, sustainable livelihoods and rural transformation, and that large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) can hinder such access, it's important to monitor these deals.

However, the controversial context and the complexities of LSLAs, as well as their potential to create conflict, mean that deals usually take place behind closed doors, limiting access to data and information on tenure. In addition, weak and deficient land and economic governance practices – largely related to this lack of information and transparency – often create conditions that fail the rural poor and disadvantage local land users in decisions on land and investment. This can weaken their position in the process, and may mean they are not being fairly compensated.

'The global impacts of LSLAs are substantial and while potentially positive impacts are relevant, including increased investment in developing economies ... negative impacts are a serious concern, and generally impact the poor most directly,' explains Markus Giger, chair of the Land Matrix Initiative (LMI). Such negative impacts can include displacement of rural people and dispossession of land and other resources, biodiversity decline, forest loss and increasing marginalisation of local farmers in land and commodity markets.

Transparency and accountability

Availability of reliable, up-to-date data is crucial to understand the context in which LSLAs take place and to improve evidence-based decision-making. The Land Matrix was therefore established in 2009 to keep track of these deals in a systematic way, and make the data open and easily accessible. A partnership of nine global and regional organisations, the Land Matrix is an independent monitoring initiative that promotes transparency and accountability in decisions over LSLAs in low- and middle-income countries around the world.

By collecting and sharing data about land deals on its open-access platform the initiative aims to stimulate debate on the trends and impacts of such acquisitions and in so doing contribute to strengthening the positions of more vulnerable stakeholders in the political and administrative processes that govern access to land.

Transparency on compensation and benefits promised and received, as well as other variables such as displacement and community impact, is generally very low, even though it is increasingly accepted that data ecosystems – infrastructure analytics and applications used to collect and analyse data on land and investment – are necessary for more inclusive, open and rigorous monitoring of land governance. In the land sector, data is scattered, often focusing only on certain markets and tenure regimes, and is politically sensitive.

To date, the Land Matrix has recorded 2,039 deals:
  • 1,729 deals have been concluded
  • More than 79.8m hectares are included in all deals
  • Deals on 49.6m hectares have been concluded
  • Deals have been documented in more than 85 countries

The first version of the Land Matrix database, launched in 2012, gave an overview of large-scale agricultural investments. It has since evolved to include the Global Observatory, which illustrates the magnitude of LSLAs on an international scale; country-specific data provides a critical regional lens on these activities. Using the online platform, you can filter the deals by negotiation and implementation status, including intended, concluded, and failed attempts to acquire land through purchase, lease or concession.

Deals may also be filtered by proposed uses, which range from agricultural production, timber extraction, carbon trading, industry, and renewable energy production to conservation and tourism.

Decentralisation is fundamental for fostering wide participation in the collection and sharing of information about LSLAs, contributing to open development and greater public involvement in critical decisions that affect land users. By piloting and supporting national land observatories (NLOs), the initiative was able not only to launch activities at country level but also to lay the foundation for continuing information sharing and dialogue in existing, multi-stakeholder platforms and to influence policy at national level.

Multi-stakeholder platforms also bridge the gap between those contributing to research on LSLAs, including researchers, civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, and community leaders, and those that will use data to inform policy, such as governments.

Bringing these parties together in pursuit of a common objective is a constructive way to connect them and enable better decisions on land and land investments.

Nevertheless, collecting information about land deals remains difficult. The information is hard to find, and even harder to confirm through independent sources. In addition, the opaque nature of land acquisitions imposes certain limits on the data-gathering process. Although private and governmental investors are beginning to share more information on land deals, transparency is still not the norm, and we continue to face a major challenge in complementing global data with local data.

Some ways we can overcome this include:

  • building stronger, more sustainable and more effective connections among the various stakeholders
  • using open land data to better understand the impact of land acquisition and inform intervention management
  • involving existing local landholders in negotiations over land deals based on free prior and informed consent
  • leveraging open land data on land deals to advance community-based tenure through lobbying, national legislation, administrative and institutional capacity building, and implementation of inclusive and sustainable land tenure and policy
  • maximising existing reference points such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Voluntary Guidelines on responsible Governance of Tenure of land, Responsible Investment in Agricultural and Food Systems, and the Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa
  • monitoring land deals, scrutinising government contracting practices, and fostering public participation in land contract negotiations through advocacy, which are some of the core activities of the Land Matrix's NLOs, particularly with regard to the processes and dynamics of land acquisitions on the ground.
Case study

The regional focal points (RFPs) and national land observatories (NLOs) investigate the social and environmental effects of LSLAs, feeding this data into advocacy strategies, which can help mitigate such phenomena in favour of more equitable access to land for peasants and indigenous communities. Furthermore, they engage with local communities and community-based organisations for data collection and verification.

In Argentina, for example, the Latin America RFP's collaboration with the Provincial Movement of Small Producers of Santa Fe, which brings together 34 peasant and indigenous organisations, resulted in the passing of Law 13666 prohibiting evictions throughout the province of Santa Fe, as well as the mobilising of resources to survey and map land to regularise land governance and secure territorial rights for peasants and indigenous peoples.

As valuable as the global perspective is for providing a broad overview of the extent, regional pattern, and implementation of such land deals, it is equally important to understand the rich local context of LSLAs, made possible through the establishment of RFPs and NLOs, which allow the Land Matrix to improve data quality and better document relevant national specificities and developments.

For example, while deals must cover a minimum area of 200ha or larger to be included in the Global Observatory, for smaller areas at regional and country level the minimum is 50ha. This is significant when considering that, for instance, 10ha is generally the maximum amount of land for family farms in Africa, which start at around just 0.5ha, compared to the 1.58m ha – an area the size of 2.2m football fields – that is currently being used in the region for palm oil concessions alone. Another area where national data is crucial is for recording domestic deals, which would not be reflected in the Global Observatory but play a key role in many regions. The Land Matrix currently supports five pilot NLOs in Argentina, Cameroon, the Philippines, Senegal and Uganda.

Cecilia Coccia is basket funding coordinator, Angela Harding is Africa RFP coordinator and Danya-Zee Pedra is communications coordinator at Land Matrix

Related competencies include: Cadastre and land administration, Economic development, Legal/regulatory compliance

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