Conference Agenda

112RB: Sustainability impacts of large scale investments
Thursday, 25/Apr/2019:
10:45am - 12:15pm

Session Chair: Ward Anseeuw
Session Chair: Wegayehu Fitawek
Session Chair: Markus Giger
Session Chair: Christoph Oberlack
Session Chair: Julie Gwendolin Zaehringer
Session Chair: Ariane de Bremond
Location: MB-114
Main Building, 1st floor, west wing, 78 seats
Session Topics:
What are the visions for the planetary land system?

Session Abstract

If a consensus emerges regarding the necessity of additional investment into agriculture (FAO, 2010), it is less evident whether large-scale agricultural investments (LAI) are a vector for broader agrarian and socio-economic transformations in a sustainable manner (Borras et al. 2012, Deininger and Byerlee 2011; Collier and Dercon 2014). Despite a growing literature (World Bank, 2010; White et al., 2012, Cotula 2014 etc.), most assessments of LAI impacts tend to remain local, in the form of specific case-studies and are often short-term without broader contextualization (Fairhead et al., 2012). Efforts to overcome these limitations through different types of meta-analysis have been undertaken (Oberlack et al., 2015, Schoneveld 2014, Schoneveld 2017, Dell’Angelo et al. (2017). However, a more empirical understanding of the various changes and impacts at various levels is necessary for reflecting on visions for the planetary land system.

The objective of the session is to discuss recent research results on sustainability impacts of Large-Scale Agricultural Investments at household and regional (sub-national) level in the global South. Priority is given to presentations of results going beyond individual cases studies by using different approaches such as comparative case studies, studies looking at regional/spatial or temporal changes. Other innovative approaches to shed further light on the dynamics and impacts generated by such investments can also be proposed.

Full talk
ID: 430 / 112RB: 1
207R New actors, global narratives, and renewed goals shaping farmland investment decisions
Keywords: Large-scale land acquisitions, investment trends, geographical contexts, land use change, Laos

Meso-level spatio-statistical analysis on the nature, trends, and contexts of large-scale land acquisitions for agricultural production in Laos

Vong Nanhthavong, Michael Epprecht, Micah Ingalls, Cornelia Hett

Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland

Recent studies of Large-Scale Land Acquisitions (LSLAs) for commercial agricultural production in developing countries draw insights from local case studies, regional inventories, or global inventories. However, these scales do not adequately inform national policy on LSLAs; local case studies are often not generalizable and accuracy of regional or global inventory data is low, obscuring processes of LSLAs’ implementation on the ground. We address this gap by analyzing detailed national data on land concessions in Laos to show the nature and trends of investments, and geographical contexts of LSLA areas.

Over the last two decades in Laos, approximately 0.5 million hectares of land was granted for export-oriented agricultural commodity production. Foreign investments expanded between 2004 and 2008 but dropped dramatically between 2009 and 2016 as domestic investments increased. The surge of LSLAs began before the 2007-2008 food and energy crisis, peaking in 2006. Investment priorities changed after the crisis, when investors shifted focus from tree crops to flex crops and food commodities. We found that, in many cases, investors rushed to control land for speculation rather than rural development opportunities. As a result, only half of the total area granted has been developed. In addition, LSLAs primarily occur in less poor and accessible lowland areas with suitable agro-ecological conditions for commodity production. LSLAs have thus not contributed significantly to rural development and poverty eradication, and may negatively impact livelihoods through loss of farmlands and resources.

Changes in national policies including the issuance of moratoria on certain investments since 2007—are important factors that have influenced investor adoption of flex crops and trends in foreign and domestic investment. However, contextually appropriate information and measures for investors that do not implement proposed projects are needed for benefits from LSLAs to reach local villagers and development broadly. Finally, further policy adjustments are needed to make land investments more pro-poor.

Full talk
ID: 628 / 112RB: 2
112R Sustainability impacts of large scale agricultural investments
Keywords: failure of land acquisitions; survival analysis, farm survival

Doomed to fail? Why some land-based investment projects fail and others succeed

Kerstin Nolte

Leibniz University Hannover, Germany

In recent years, an increased interest in farmland globally has led to the emergence of many land-based investment projects. Although most projects enter the production stage, a significant number also end in failure. This paper asks why land-based investment projects fail or succeed. This question is of great importance from a policy point of view: understanding the risk factors of such land acquisitions and selecting investors and investment regions more carefully could reduce the failure rate and thereby the negative impacts of such projects. This paper is the first to assess why land acquisitions fail using a quantitative empirical approach that draws on project-level observations from the Land Matrix Global Observatory and on survival analysis. I find that failure occurs globally but is concentrated on the African continent, with some countries exhibiting a particularly high risk of project failure. In addition, larger projects, projects growing agrofuels, and projects targeting land formerly used by smallholders or pastoralists are more likely to fail. In contrast, projects that involve domestic investors or take place in countries with better infrastructure are less likely to fail. Results on the impact of host-country institutions on project failure are ambiguous. These findings warrant some reflection on the sustainability of such projects, which are often welcomed by political decision makers: agricultural projects require careful planning, especially in settings with limited infrastructure and weak institutions. Host-country governments as well as international funders need to put in place a more rigorous screening process for investment projects in agriculture.

Flash talk
ID: 855 / 112RB: 3
112R Sustainability impacts of large scale agricultural investments
Keywords: forest loss, poverty, spatial lag model, matching method, population displacement, Cambodia

Estimating forest carbon emission caused by economic land concession in Cambodia

Quy Van Khuc1, Ariane de Bremond2, Evan Ellicott3, Nicholas Magliocca1

1Department of Geography, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; 2Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland; 3Geographical Sciences Department, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA

The global south has seen a rush in large-scale land acquisitions (LSLA), recently leading to an overarching need for an advanced understanding of its effects on the sustainability of the environment and human systems. LSLA has been considered an engine for stimulating economic growth and reducing rural poverty for many developing nations. With a total of 2.6 million ha assigned to economic land concessions (ELCs) in 2012, Cambodia is an exemplary country in terms of LSLA in Southeast Asia. In this study, we aim at exploring about to what extent LSLA affected forested areas, facilitated forest loss, and caused forest carbon emission in Cambodia during 2000-2016. We employ a novel synthesis approach combining archetypical analysis framework and remote sensing time series data at the communal scale to empirically estimate the temporal-spatial effects of LSLA for forest carbon emissions associated with forest loss inside and outside ELC boundaries. Results show that economic land concession triggers a direct and indirect land use change with a total forest loss of 0.75 million ha, which leads to a total forest carbon emission of 589 TgC during 2000-2016. We conclude that LSLA produces a truly significant direct and indirect land use change, which exacerbates environmental degradation in Cambodia. Our results illustrate several possible important environmental policy implications associated and or combined with ongoing climate change mitigation projects for controlling and/or minimizing LSLA-induced deforestation in Cambodia and beyond.

Full talk
ID: 794 / 112RB: 4
112R Sustainability impacts of large scale agricultural investments
Keywords: Africa, land grabs, Intensification

Agricultural intensification and large-scale land transactions in Ethiopia

Carly Muir, Jane Southworth, Reza Khatami

University of Florida, United States of America

Ethiopia has registered among the greatest number and area of recent Large-Scale Land Acquisitions (LSLA). These LSLA represent agricultural intensification across a landscape that has largely consisted of small holder farming, with an objective of achieving increased agricultural productivity. However, intensification can take many forms and it is unclear whether Ethiopia is benefitting from LSLA. The goal of this study is twofold: 1) Identify what type of intensification is occurring in Ethiopia and 2) Determine if the LSLA are increasing productivity and how many transactions have been converted to intensified agriculture. An extensive literature review is done to address the first question. Peer-reviewed published studies are coded based on type of intensification (irrigation, fertilizer, sustainable intensification, etc.). Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MODIS) is used to assess whether productivity has increased at the transaction sites. The location of LSLA is provided by the Land Matrix dataset, and NDVI values for these points are examined from 2000 to 2016. The overall aim of this study is to survey the status of agricultural intensification in Ethiopia and whether the transactions exhibit increases in agricultural productivity. Additionally, this work will aid in better identifying transactions on the landscape that have not been formally recorded. ​

Flash talk
ID: 884 / 112RB: 5
112R Sustainability impacts of large scale agricultural investments
Keywords: LSLAs, earth observation, LCLUC, Ethiopia, Tanzania

Impacts of large-scale land acquisitions in the context of sustainable development: A comparative study of Ethiopia and Tanzania

Audrey Culver Smith, Reza Khatami

University of Florida, United States of America

As the Earth’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, it is argued that a significant increase in agricultural production/productivity is necessary to meet global food need, which can be achieved only by replacing smallholder with industrial-type farming. A challenge moving forward is to determine the best ways to improve agricultural productivity while enhancing livelihoods, protecting natural resources, and minimizing negative environmental externalities. In sub-Saharan Africa, the abundance of agro-ecologically suitable land and welcoming governments of host countries has made it a primary target for agricultural land investments—or large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs). Countries such as Ethiopia and Tanzania have encouraged foreign land investments to promote economic development. Large tracts of land are leased or sold to agri-businesses and foreign investors, often displacing local populations and threatening environmentally-sensitive ecosystems and their services. In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is crucial to understand how these land deals impact local and regional food security and avoid social and environmental tradeoffs. Although some recent studies have attempted to quantify land cover change driven by LSLAs and the impacts of those changes, few have attempted to take this a step further to link LULCC to multiple outcomes across temporal and spatial scales, and compare outcomes across countries. This research uses multi-temporal remote sensing and household survey data to evaluate the impacts of LULCC driven by large-scale investments and LSLAs at the household, local and regional levels in Ethiopia and Tanzania. Land cover and change maps are produced and linked to LSLA data from ‘the Land Matrix’ database and multi-temporal household survey data to conduct a comparative analysis of environmental and social outcomes within and across the countries of Ethiopia and Tanzania. Results are presented as part of a larger NSF-funded study on LSLA in Africa.

Full talk
ID: 871 / 112RB: 6
112R Sustainability impacts of large scale agricultural investments
Keywords: large-scale agricultural investments, land change, livelihoods, survey methods

Agricultural transitions: direct and indirect land-use change pathways of large-scale land acquisitions in Tanzania

Jonathan Sullivan

University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, MI, United States of America

Agriculture is at the center of the sustainability challenge of the 21st century. Rising demand from increasing population, incomes, and protein rich diets will threaten an additional 1-billion hectares of natural ecosystems, exacerbating forest and habitat loss globally. To decouple agricultural production and environmental harm, sustainable intensification has been offered as a solution that can enhance crop yields on existing agricultural land and thereby spare conservation land. To make commercial agricultural investable, however, requires changing tenure and production systems that can transform local economies. Promoting commercial agriculture does not occur in a vacuum, rather it can fundamentally change the valuation of land, introduce new labor structures, influence local markets and livelihood options for those dependent on land resources. Ultimately, the hypothesized conservation gains of intensifying agriculture will be determined by how commercial agriculture restructures local economies rather than on the efficiency gains alone. The primary objective of this research is to explain how commodity agriculture transforms economies of rural Tanzania and results in new land-use decisions by proximate households.

To test the local land-use decisions of smallholder farmers and whether households systematically choose intensification, expansion or abandonment, a household survey and statistical matching design was used across four large-scale land investments in Tanzania (n=1085). Results point towards the need to account for spillover effects in land change pathways outside the boundaries of large-scale land acquisitions and differing pathways based on multi-level structure of biophysical, household and governance elements of land deals.

Flash talk
ID: 883 / 112RB: 7
112R Sustainability impacts of large scale agricultural investments
Keywords: LSLAs, earth observation

Earth observations for detecting and characterizing Large Scale Land Acquisitions (LSLAs)

Evan Ellicott1, Kaspar Hurni2, Ariane de Bremond1,2,3, Nicholas Magliocca4

1University of Maryland, United States of America; 2University of Bern, Centre for Development and Environment, Switzerland; 3Global Land Programme, International Programme Office, Switzerland; 4University of Alabama, United States of America

The acquisition of land by domestic and foreign agents is not a new phenomenon, but the pace and extent to which land investment is occurring has drawn attention to linkages between global economies and local issues of land tenure, water rights, and social justice.

Numerous organizations monitor land transactions and offer details about investments to increase awareness and transparency. Perhaps the largest source of such information is provided by the Land Matrix ( The Land Matrix Initiative (LMI) monitors and describes thousands of land transactions across the globe for various intentions, from agriculture to mining. The LMI has developed a methodology to collect data from a variety of sources including NGOs, international organizations, company websites, and media reports. In addition, partnerships with national-level organizations lend insight and credibility to the data collection. However, the question we posed is what information can be added from remote sensing (RS), particularly when the geospatial location of a deal is not certain or unknown.

The application of remote sensing for land cover and land use change (LCLUC) delivers a perspective unachievable on the ground. Satellites improve the use of RS through regular, large-area observations. The challenge in applying RS for LCLUC analysis is first understanding biophysical conditions for the region of interests and then choosing the appropriate spatial and temporal scales for the change under analysis.

In this paper, we present a framework to monitor, identify, and characterize LSLAs using a combination of different spatial, temporal, and radiometric resolutions for a variety of investment intentions. LSLA data, as well as area potential investment to monitor, were provided by the LMI and their national partners. We examined coarse spatial resolution (250-500 meter) data for regular large-area monitoring of change, dense time stacks of moderate resolution (20-30 meter) for change detection verification, identification, and characterization, and use very high resolution (VHR; <1 – 5 meter) images to improve LSLA identification and for verification. We concluded that RS offers early detection through regular monitoring, as well as sufficient information to characterize the timing, extent, and type of change. Drawing on several examples from across the globe, we discuss that the contextual nature of the LSLA process and the considerations needed to when applying RS.