‘Repressive governments use financial crises, global pandemics to change societal norms’

Sam Szoke-Burke, senior legal researcher, Columbia University, talks to DTE amid reports of governments trying to take control of land in name of COVID-19 recovery  

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Monday 13 July 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has hollowed out economies, apart from affecting individual lives and communities. There have also been allegations that some governments have used the crisis as a pretext to take control of land from local people in the name of reviving the economy.

Down to Earth talked to Sam Szoke-Burke, senior legal researcher, Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, Columbia Law School, Columbia University, to understand the subject better. Edited excerpts. 

Kundan Pandey: Several reports have underlined that governments are trying to take land from local people in a bid to ‘revive their economy’. What is your reading about the present situation?

Sam Szoke-Burke: Colombia, for example, has announced a plan to use digital technology for community consultations on extractive industry projects. This, despite indications from Colombian civil society that 90 per cent of indigenous lands in the country lack internet access.

 In other cases, governments are calling for changes in land policy and law that weaken environmental and social protections. These will make it easier for companies to grab lands neglecting land and human rights of local communities and other tenure rights holders.

KP: Is it common for the governments to push for land acquisition after every big crisis such as an epidemic or a financial crisis?

SS: Analyst Naomi Klein articulated “the shock doctrine,” wherein repressive governments use shocks like financial crises, natural disasters or global pandemics to change societal norms and systems in ways that damage human rights and inclusive economies.

Examples of disaster capitalism are springing up daily. There are reports of Puerto Rico risking a bad deal for a power plant contract. Recently, a minister in Alberta, Canada, said it is a “great time” to build an oil pipeline because the COVID-19 pandemic limits citizens’ ability to protest.

KP: There are restrictions on people’s movement amid the pandemic. Do you think communities are in position to bargain with governments?

SS: Restrictions on citizens’ ability to associate, protest and attend consultations open up opportunities for governments to undemocratically force through land acquisitions or project authorisations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has already said it is impossible to conduct appropriate processes for obtaining free, prior and informed consent of communities in such circumstances. It urged governments to suspend procedures for authorising resource investments in or around indigenous territories.

Forging ahead with investment approvals without regard for community rights and well-being is not the answer. Doing so will be self-defeating for governments and investors.

KP: How have previous efforts of acquiring land after a social or economic crisis impacted local people?

SS: Investor interest in land and resource investments — and the increased risk of land grabs — is often cyclical. For instance, dramatically increased food prices caused a spike in the negotiation of investment contracts concluded between companies and host governments for agricultural projects in 2005.

This global rush for land slowed, but did not stop, by 2012.

This tendency for land grabs is facilitated by governments desperate to welcome investment. Governments may offer vast and usually inhabited lands at bargain basement prices or turn a blind eye to illegal grabbing of community lands. This is often self-defeating; many investment projects result in local conflicts that cost millions of dollars and even lead to projects being abandoned and country reputations being damaged.

Repressive and austere governments often allow investors to engage in land speculation that can drive up grabbing of land that may not even be developed into an agricultural or resource development, but can be simply bought and sold off as their value increases. TIAA-CREF, a type of retirement fund for American workers, was accused of engaging in this practice in Brazil.

Communities risk being forced off the land, with or without any compensation. Their right to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent, among other human rights, risks being violated. Such communities will lose access to lands and resources from which they derive their livelihoods and which are of fundamental cultural or spiritual importance.

Their social networks and access to markets will be disrupted. Their support networks will disappear as community members are forced to scatter far and wide. Such land grabs can threaten the survival of indigenous peoples and cultures and lead to a deadly spiral of impoverishment, disenfranchisement and conflict.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.