Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What drives the global land rush?

What drives the global land rush? Authors: Arezki, Rabah; Deininger, Klaus; Selod, Harris
IMF Working Paper No. 11/251

Summary: This paper studies the determinants of foreign land acquisition for large-scale agriculture. To do so, gravity models are estimated using data on bilateral investment relationships, together with newly constructed indicators of agro-ecological suitability in areas with low population density as well as indicators of land rights security. Results confirm the central role of agro-ecological potential as a pull factor. In contrast to the literature on foreign investment in general, the quality of the business climate is insignificant whereas weak land governance and tenure security for current users make countries more attractive for investors. Implications for policy are discussed.


After decades of stagnant or declining commodity prices when agriculture was considered a ‘sunset industry’, recent increases in the level and volatility of commodity prices and the resulting demand for land have taken many observers by surprise. This phenomenon has been accompanied by a rising interest in acquiring agricultural land by investors, including sovereign wealth and private equity funds, agricultural producers, and key players from the food and agri-business industry. Investors’ motivations include economic considerations, mistrust in markets and concern about political stability, or speculation on future demand for food and fiber, or future payment for environmental services including for carbon sequestration. Some stakeholders, including many host-country governments, welcome such investment as an opportunity to overcome decades of under-investment in the sector, create employment, and leapfrog and take advantage of recent technological development. Others denounce it as a ”land grab” (Zoomers 2010). They point to the irony of envisaging large exports of food from countries which in some cases depend on regular food aid. It is noted that specific projects’ speculative nature, questionable economic basis, or lack of consultation and compensation of local people calls for a global response (De Schutter 2011).  In a context of diametrically opposite perceptions, the objective of the present paper is to provide greater clarity on the numbers involved and the factors driving such investment. This is done by quantifying demand for land deals, and exploring the determinants of foreign land acquisition for large-scale agriculture using data on bilateral investment relationships. This work is an important first step to assess potential long-term impacts and discuss policy implications.

The analysis of large-scale land deals is relevant for a number of key development issues.  One such issue is the debate on the most appropriate structure of agricultural production. The exceptionally large poverty elasticity of growth in smallholder agriculture (de Janvry and Sadoulet 2010, Loayza and Raddatz 2010) that is reflected in rapid recent poverty reduction in Asian economies such as China, and the fact that the majority of poor are still located in rural areas led observers to highlight the importance of a smallholder structure for poverty reduction (Lipton 2009, World Bank 2007). At the same time, disillusion with the limited success of smallholder-based efforts to improve productivity in sub-Saharan Africa (Collier 2008) and apparent export competitiveness of “mega-farms” in Latin America or Eastern Europe during the 2007/8 global food crisis have led to renewed questions about whether, despite a mixed record, large scale agriculture can be a path out of poverty and to development.

Whatever the envisaged scenario, renewed pressure on land raises the issue of whether there is sufficient competition and transparency to ensure that land owners or users are able to either transfer their land at a fair price or hold on to it as opposed to having it taken away without their consent and in what may be perceived an unfair deal. This resonates with recent contributions to the literature that suggest that resource abundance can contribute to more broad-based development only if well-governed institutions to manage these resources exist (Oechslin 2010). This is borne out by empirical evidence both across countries (Cabrales and Hauk 2011) and within more specific country contexts where resource booms may have fuelled widespread rent-seeking and corruption (Bhattacharyya and Hodler 2010) or even violence (Angrist and Kugler 2008) rather than economic development.

To better understand this phenomenon and its potential impact, an empirical analysis of the factors driving transnational land acquisition is needed. To this end, we constructed a global database with country-level information on both foreign demand for land and implemented projects as documented in international and local press reports. We complement it with country-specific assessments of the amount of potentially suitable land and other relevant variables. We then use bilateral investment relationships from the database to estimate gravity models that can help identify determinants of foreign land acquisition. Results confirm the central role of agro-ecological potential as a pull factor but suggest that, in contrast to what is found for foreign investment more generally, rule of law and good governance have no effect on the number of land-related investment. Moreover, and counterintuitively, we find that countries where governance of the land sector and tenure security are weak have been most attractive for investors. This finding, which resonates with concerns articulated by parts of civil society, suggests that, to minimize the risk that such investments fail to produce benefits for local populations , the micro-level and project-based approach that has dominated the global debate so far will need to be complemented with an emphasis and determined action to improve land governance, transparency and global monitoring.  The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 puts recent land demand into broader context, highlighting the importance of governance in attracting investments. It draws on an analysis of how foreign direct investment (FDI) is treated in the macro-literature to suggest a methodological approach, and outlines how we address specific data needs. Section 3 presents our cross-sectional data on land demand, outlines the econometric approach, and briefly discusses relevant descriptive statistics. Key econometric results in section 4 support the importance of food import demand as motivations for countries to seek out land abroad (‘push factors’) and of agro-ecological suitability as key determinants for the choice of destination (‘pull factors’). They also highlight the extent to which weak land governance seems to encourage rather than discourage transnational demand for land. Section 5 concludes by highlighting a number of implications for policy.

Buy the paper here: http://www.imfbookstore.org/ProdDetails.asp?ID=WPIEA2011251