Foreign Investment: Failing People and the Environment

By Dr Kristen Lyons
Green Resources Sign

By Dr Kristen Lyons. This article is part of our August theme, which focuses on the environment and human rights. Read more articles on this theme.

One of Australia’s greatest contemporary singer-songwriters David Bridie, from the much loved band My Friend the Chocolate Cake, penned what has become one of my favourite songs, “I’ve Got a Plan”. In his lyrics, Bridie reminds us of the importance of planning to protect and sustain what is important, and to break habits that don’t serve us.

Many of us would agree a well thought out plan is a good thing. Yet I wish there were more reasons to be enthusiastic about the recently launched National Food Plan Green Paper, which offers a plan for ensuring a “sustainable, globally competitive, resilient food supply”. Don’t be fooled, especially by the colour. There is much to be concerned about in the Green Paper. In their comprehensive critique, Nicholas Rose and Michael Croft highlight the dominance of industry interests in driving the framework and process, with outcomes that largely overlook environmental, social justice and human rights issues and concerns. Despite the many concerns I have with this plan, here I focus on just one of its underlying principles: the unabashed enthusiasm for foreign investment in food and agriculture.

this case … is a call to arms; to shine a light on the abuses of people and ecosystems that is occurring under the guise of green foreign investment

Australia’s National Food Plan is one of a number of cheerleaders for foreign investment in food and agriculture. According to the Plan, foreign investment increases agriculture and food production, fosters job creation and prosperity in rural communities, as well as economic growth. It also warns that curtailing foreign investment would deliver higher food prices, as well as reducing employment and incomes. Similar claims resonate globally. Foreign investment in the “green economy”, for example, was a major focus at the recent Rio + 20 conference – marking 20 years since the first Earth Summit. And foreign investors are clearly thinking green; with estimates from the United Nations that biomass represent the fastest growing segment of the world agriculture market, and predictions from The World Economic Forum that biomass might generate up to $300 billion in profits by 2020.

There is promise that some forms of private-led investment might deliver positive environmental and social benefits, as well as assisting to support the establishment of equitable food systems. However, private-led investment may also produce adverse impacts that disproportionately accrue to certain communities and regions. Arecent case in East Africa, garnering significant international attention, demonstrates the weight of such impacts for smallholder farmers and their communities.

some villagers living in Bukaleba Forest believe their crops have been deliberately sprayed with chemicals by company employees as part of a broad campaign to drive people out of the forest.

In this case, the UK New Forest Company secured a 50-year license from the National Forestry Authority to plant trees in Uganda (mostly monoculture stands of pine and eucalypt) to harvest as saw logs and sequester carbon. In the process of securing access to this land, an estimated 20,000 Ugandans have been displaced, with reports from Oxfam of houses being burnt and food crops destroyed. The UK New Forest Company denies their investment activities were connected to the intimidation, violence and the ultimate displacement documented by Oxfam and its local non-government organisation partners. They claim their license to operate was granted on gazetted forest reserve; a land title that extinguishes customary or other local land rights. Oxfam and the Ugandan Land Alliance, however, argue villages have been settled in forest reserves across the country over a period of decades, and many have rights to compensation associated with forced relocation.

This is a tragic story, and the office of the compliance advisor/ombudsman of the World Bank is currently mediating between the UK New Forest Company and Oxfam in seeking to find an amicable solution. While an outcome is yet to be resolved, this case (and a growing number like it) is a call to arms; to shine a light on the abuses of people and ecosystems that is occurring under the guise of green foreign investment across the Global South and North.

On a visit to Uganda in June this year I learnt first hand about the environmental and social costs associated with another so-called green foreign investment initiative. Here, I met with smallholder farmers who live in, amongst and adjacent to two forest reserves – Bukaleba and Kachung Forest – that are being reforested by the Norwegian company, Green Resources. There are some alarming similarities between the impacts of this company’s foreign investment activities and that of the now infamous UK New Forests Company. Consideration of these impacts takes further sheen off the apparent green utopia of foreign investment – including frequently touted claims that it will deliver national and international food security.

“what we want is investment that is responsible in nature, and respects fundamental land rights, and that compensates communities, and that provides adequate employment”.

To begin, Green Resources primarily plants non-native pine and eucalypt species, creating what some describe as a monoculture forest plantation. The agricultural chemical regime followed as part of the Forest Management Plan has, according to many villagers, killed both food crops and livestock, and some villagers living in Bukaleba Forest believe their crops have been deliberately sprayed with chemicals by company employees as part of a broad campaign to drive people out of the forest. Green Resources is also reported to be violating their own Forest Management Plan in Bukaleba Forest Reserve, by planting in protection zones in the 200-metre ecologically sensitive buffer zone adjacent to Lake Victoria. The Mayuge District Environment Officer expressed deep frustration at the company’s failure to comply with aspects of the Forest Management Plan and the Environmental Impact Statement. He lamented at what he described as the company’s disregard for environmental law in Uganda. This led one environmental activist with whom I spoke to despair, “Green Resources have done a lot of havoc, and have violated many environmental laws”.

The expansion in the area dedicated to forest plantations by Green Resources has also intensified pressure in terms of villagers’ access to land to grow food and graze animals. Amongst villagers I spoke with who live in or adjacent to both Bukaleba and Kachung Forest Reserves, many described being “squeezed” off the land by the trees; including losing access to land they had been reliant upon for the cultivation of crops, grazing cattle and collection of firewood, as well as for accessing sites of cultural significance and sourcing water. In Kachung Forest, some community members also described being issued a fine as a result of their animals “trespassing” onto company land, fines they could ill afford to pay.

Some people living in and adjacent to Bukaleba and Kachung Forests who had been employed by Green Resources spoke of poor working conditions and irregular payments from the company. I also heard accounts of intimidation when people voiced their concerns, with some describing “being chased away, and expelled from the company” after expressing dissatisfaction with their employment conditions. I was also told devastating tales at Bukaleba of the incarceration of some community members as a result of “trespass” and “illegal harvesting and logging” on land licensed to the company.

The experiences of villagers living in and adjacent to Green Resources’ licensed areas highlight some of the problems that appear systemic to foreign investment worldwide. International actors – such as the UK New Forest Company and Green Resources – appear able to fly under the radar of environmental and human rights laws in both their own nations as well as the host country in which they operate. Complex land rights laws further muddy these waters, in many instances exacerbating adverse impacts. As such, and despite the optimism of its cheerleaders, (green) foreign investment presents new challenges for ensuring environmental, social and food justice across the Global South and North.

It will also require the re-thinking of nature as more than simply commodifiable bits of biomass, but rather as complex and interconnected ecosystems on which human beings’ survival depends.

Yet despite the negative impacts associated with the activities of foreign investors, one environmental activist in Uganda I spoke with also explained, “We very much like investors, we need them more than yesterday”. But he also cautioned that “what we want is investment that is responsible in nature, and respects fundamental land rights, and that compensates communities, and that provides adequate employment”.

Achieving such ends will require a transformation in both regulatory environments and corporate culture in ways that foster ethical and democratic forms of foreign investment. It will also require the re-thinking of nature as more than simply commodifiable bits of biomass, but rather as complex and interconnected ecosystems on which human beings’ survival depends. Surely environmental justice and human rights are issues of fundamental importance to us all, and should therefore form the basis of planning processes and principles, including planning related to the future of food and agriculture.

As David Bridie reminds us, planning provides us with an opportunity to protect and enhance those things that are important to us. To date, Australia’s National Food Plan Green Paper has failed to ensure that Australian and global food systems are premised on principles of environmental and social justice. Until the Australian Government offers a more inspirational vision for the future of food and agriculture, we will just have to keep listening to the music.

Dr Kristen Lyons is a Senior Lecturer of Sociology at University of Queensland’s School of Social Science. In June, she completed one month of fieldwork in Uganda for a current Australian Research Council research project she is engaged in called “The New Farm Owners: Finance Companies and the Restructuring of Australian and Global Agriculture“. Kristen has also been involved in social research on organic agriculture and development in Uganda over the last eight years, and has previously spent six months in the School of Social Sciences at Makerere University, Uganda.

For more information, see the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration’s publication Geopiracy: The Case Against GeoEngineering. Oxfam’s Briefing Paper “Land and Power: The growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investments in land” can be found here.

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