A major success

On 11 May 2012, a new international instrument will be endorsed at a special session of the reformed UN Committee on World Food Security. The instrument has the lengthy title “Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Forests and Fisheries in the Context of National Food Security“. It is an ­important achievement.

By Michael Windfuhr

The Voluntary Guidelines are a ­response to the growing worldwide interest in land, forest and fishery investment. Because large-scale land acquisitions (“land grabs”) regularly lead to conflicts over ownership and rights of use, two international initiatives are seeking ways to limit the negative outcomes. At the UN, inspired by the positive results of guidelines on the right to food, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) launched the initiative to formulate voluntary guidelines for good governance related to tenure. In a parallel development, the G20 prompted the World Bank to develop principles for responsible investments in land. The former is now ready to be signed; work on the latter will build on it in the years to come.

The Guidelines are the result of three years of negotiation involving stake-holders from government, civil society and the private sector. The document’s strength is its human-rights approach, making clear that:
– access to land, forests and fisheries is crucial for realising the right to food, and
– new investment cannot be harnessed for broad-based rural development without long-term, comprehensive land use planning.

The Guidelines define minimum stan-dards for government agencies and investors. Their application will ensure that disadvantaged groups are not marginalised any further. Affected people need to retain access to the resources on which they depend. Otherwise, they must be fully compensated. The new agreement spells out:
– how the participation of all concerned can be ensured,
– how traditional and informal rights can be recognised, secured and conferred, and
– how the interests of indigenous peoples should be taken into account.
Prevention of corruption is a high priority at all levels.

Obviously, voluntary guidelines are not automatically translated into standard government practice everywhere. Their implementation certainly calls for development policy support. But the fact that the Guidelines are voluntary does not make them ineffective.

The negotiation of a binding treaty would have taken years and would then have applied only to the countries that ratified it. Voluntary application, on the other hand, permitted the swift drafting of a response to an urgent challenge. Even though the text is not binding, it contributes to the development of standards in international law. It is an example of how human rights standards can be enforced in a policy context fraught with conflict. It matters that the Guidelines were written by consensus. Governments and investors will come under pressure if they infringe upon them. A whole range of different actors will find the document useful. Civil servants will be able to refer to the text when dealing with their government or international investors. Civil society groups will use it in support of their arguments. It is obviously useful for governments and investors, moreover, to have standards on which to base their action.

The negotiation process was vigorously supported by Germany (under the aegis of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection) and Switzerland. The two countries have reason to consider the Guidelines’ endorsement a major success. The same is true of the CFS. It was created in 2009 and is under pressure to prove its relevance. In any case, the Voluntary Guildelines are a valid response to a pressing issue.

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