Over the past decade, a spike in demand for agricultural land in developing countries has generated a great deal of political and media attention. While many investments bring opportunities for local communities, some have wrongfully pushed residents and workers off their lands or have caused social and environmental harm. Some development projects (e.g. agroforestry initiatives, irrigation schemes) have also encountered land conflict.
In some cases, disputes between project developers and local communities were rooted, at least in part, in pre-existing conflicts within or between the communities. Local land conflicts are common in countries where land governance is weak, but they can be hard for outsiders to spot. Yet failure to identify and address these conflicts in a timely way can result in disputes escalating into wider conflicts also affecting commercial or development projects.
These wider conflicts can negatively impact communities, causing serious harm to vulnerable groups. This includes effects on local livelihoods, which may significantly depend on land and resources. But it includes wider effects too. Land is often more than a commodity to be traded. It can carry religious or cultural meaning and represent the backbone of local economies.
Left unaddressed, escalating land disputes can also result in project delays, increased operational, labor and legal costs, supply chain issues, damage to property, security concerns, and reputational harm. Costs may be high and drawn out, nullifying return on investments or resulting in stranded assets. Investors may be inadvertently complicit in the wrongful displacement of people, which can lead to revocation of operational licenses or undermine the “social license to operate.”