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Sylvia Kay
Researcher, the Agrarian Justice team of the Transnational Institute (TNI)
The Netherlands, 30-03-2015

Inclusive development starts with land and food sovereignty

Too often the current development paradigm considers land and food to be tradable commodities like any other, rather than a matter of fundamental human rights concern. This has allowed for the accumulation of wealth and opportunities in the hands of a few, producing often highly unequal agrarian structures operating on the basis of discrimination and privilege. Against this exclusive development model, I would argue for a people-centred countermovement for democratic land control and food governance, in other words: for land and food sovereignty. Rather than seeking answers to rural poverty and hunger through the expansion of global value chains, whose potential for broad-based development is limited, Dutch development and trade policy should take seriously its commitment to fulfil the Right to Food by supporting the investments made by the world’s small-scale food producers.

As some of the worst excesses of ‘land grabbing’ have risen to the fore in recent years, there has been a perceptible shift in development discourse, away from large-scale foreign direct investment, to alternative business models, such as contract farming, which seek to incorporate smallholders in their operations. While land grabs have been premised on dispossession and the expulsion of people from ‘their land’, it is argued that these new economic arrangements, where both the land and labour is needed, could minimise the risks and maximise the opportunities to produce win-win outcomes.

Under certain conditions, it is possible for these new configurations of land, labour and capital to be made to work. It is questionable however to what extent they can act as a vector for broad-based development. The high transaction costs and operation of inclusion thresholds mean that most companies prefer to deal with better-off farmers, leaving smaller and more resource-poor farmers out of their purview. This is not to discount the potential for harnessing agribusiness capital, but it is to be aware of its significant limitations and uncertainties – particularly when set against highly uneven agrarian landscapes and decades of regressive agricultural spending.

One must ask, for example, what the competitive opportunities are for Europe’s small, young and aspiring farmers when 80% of the subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy go to large farmers while the top 1% of EU farms control 20% of the farm land, the top 3% control 50% of farmland, with the remaining 80% of farms below 10ha controlling only 14.5% of the land.

This suggests that to reach the most excluded and disadvantaged groups, a new policy framework is needed which explicitly prioritises these groups in decision-making processes. Contrary to the extraordinary degree of concentration and oligopoly that defines the current corporate food regime, this must start from the democratic principle that people have a right to define their own land and food systems. This requires not only that the poor and marginalised are helped through safety net type palliatives, but that a defensive strategy of livelihood protection is met through a proactive strategy of livelihood promotion. As the legal discourse and practice on the Right to Food makes plain, states have fundamental human rights obligations to not only respect and protect citizens’ Right to Food, but also to fulfil, to the maximum possible, their Right to Food through public policy and public investment.

In this regard, the role of civil society, including transnational agrarian movements is crucial: unless rights are actively claimed and defended from below, there is a danger that even the most progressive programmes can fail to redistribute wealth and opportunities to those at the bottom.

The Dutch government should seek to mainstream such a policy framework in its development cooperation and trade programmes, including in guiding the revision of its Bilateral Investment Treaties which have served to undermine agrarian justice in the South, through the use of normative, human rights based instruments such as the Tenure Guidelines.


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Promoting inclusiveness in the Dutch policy agenda on trade and international cooperation

This contribution is part of a consultation for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on how to promote inclusiveness in the Dutch policy agenda on trade and international cooperation.
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