10th anniversary of the CFS VGGT | Land Portal

Once again International Development organizations (World Bank, IFAD, FAO, USAID, GIZ and others) came together to discuss the Voluntary Guidelines, which were approved in May2012. An indisputable success of this was to have also associated the largest peasant movement, La Via Campesina, which from the day of approval enthusiastically applauded this process.

For those with short memories, it is necessary to recall for the umpteenth time the historical period in which the VGGTs were inserted, so that the manipulation operation so brilliantly carried out is clearer, as well as the cul-de-sac in which we now find ourselves.

The 1990s, despite the aggressive domination of the neoliberal, individualist, God-market-centered model, had seen the eternal question of "Land" resurrect internationally, both via the issue of Agrarian Reform and through the issue of the rights of local and indigenous peoples. The gender question was also trying to gain space, in a world, the agrarian world, dominated by a macho view both in government institutions and in UN agencies and peasant movements.

A favorable conjunction of stars meant that FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf listened to the initial request from the Philippines, which was later joined by Brazil, took the issue to heart and, despite strong internal resistance, particularly from our unit (the Land Tenure Service) and its English head, decided to go ahead, getting the idea of an international conference approved by all the internal committees and entrusted its implementation to the new director, a sensitive Iranian though not a specialist on the subject, with whom I had the honor of sharing the essentials of the preparatory work.

The Conference (ICARRD) was carried out in Brazil, since they had put the necessary funds to them, so they could spend it in the domestic political market to try to redound the blazon of President Lula who, on this issue, had not kept any of the promises he had made in the election campaign. Symptomatic that, after discussing dates for months so as to be certain of his presence at the opening, Lula preferred, at the last moment, to leave for England to have his picture taken with Queen Elizabeth, confirming that his priorities went toward the wealthy upper class rather than among the landless poor.

ICARRD was organized very differently than usual, giving the same opportunities to speak (in what are commonly called side-events) to the World Bank as to the last interested NGO. For the first time, the preparatory documents, which had always been the sole responsibility of the FAO, were opened to outside input, so that one of them was prepared entirely by the IPC, LVC's international policy arm on the mother issue, food sovereignty.

Of course, the World Bank and its cronies (the likes of USAID, DfiD) did not appreciate this whiff of democracy, and did not show up, but began working behind the scenes to prepare a different future than what was brewing in Porto Alegre.

ICARRD, as everyone and all those people who were there remember, was a moment of open, sincere dialogue, even with the peasant movements that were more reluctant to enter into a logic of dialogue and negotiation, and it ended with a very strong feeling of positivity.

We were aware that the Northern countries, i.e., the Donors, were not happy that we were thinking of touching this issue together with social movements and peasant and indigenous organizations, without giving a main role to the Northern potentates. So the problem of how to organize ourselves for follow-up immediately arose.

Thanks to the support of IFAD colleagues, it was possible to think of a joint initiative, with the FAO and interested peasant movements, starting with the ongoing projects, to demonstrate in practice the validity of ICARRD's pivotal principle: dialogue and negotiation, not mere participation, but creating conditions, that is, going in to discuss local power dynamics, to get around a table where we could discuss policies and legislation and programs in favor of overcoming the "bottlenecks" that blocked any "development" effort.

Resistance was greater than we estimated, but what we did not expect was the betrayal of LVC.

The countries of the North, initially very reluctant to touch the land issue, had slowly given in to the growing conflict in an increasing number of countries, despite the World Bank's attempts to direct these dynamics to peripheral and neutral issues, that is, without touching the central issue of power asymmetries. So it was that the first move was to send donors to talk to the new department head of our unit (i.e., the head of the director who had taken responsibility for organizing ICARRD) and put a large amount of funds on the table to deal with a new issue, on which it was not obvious that FAO had a mandate, climate change, under one condition: forget ICARRD.

The next step was to put into circulation the proposal to start working on the "governance" of the earth, keeping in the background canvas the interpretation of this issue as given by the Washington Consensus keepers. Thus was born Operation VGGT. Main purpose, to take out of circulation any reference to agrarian reform, this word which, for those in the North, sounds like a blasphemy in St. Peter's Basilica. Operation Replacement had begun in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Wall and the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. The U.S. government proposed (imposed?) the FAO to eliminate two services that, in their opinion, served no purpose: the first was Rural Extension and the second, needless to say, was ours, which had always been called the Agrarian Reform Service. Internal FAO political "negotiation" resulted in the elimination of the first service and a name change for ours, which went by the name Land Tenure Service. 

To the uninitiated this may seem like an insignificant step; in reality it was central to the operation of bringing the lands (and resources) of the South under the control of international finance. FAO was the only UN agency where agrarian reform was being talked about and promoted (perhaps not too much), a change of structure, not just a matter of technique and technology as at IFAD they like to discuss these days.

There was one small space left where they still talked about agrarian reform, and that was the official FAO journal that I had been in charge of as editor since 1992. Even there, thanks to the new British boss who was imposed on us, the tune changed, and I was ousted from this task just at the vigil of ICARRD, to hand over the role to a colleague who later made a career at the World Bank on exactly the data, technique and technology issues related to land tenure.

Our became Land Tenure Service, the renamed Land Tenure Journal, what remained was the need to defuse the potential that ICARRD represented. That's what Operation VGGT was for: first, to permanently remove any reference to agrarian reform and frame it within the perimeter of land administration, cadastre, data and modern technology, so that we would no longer talk about power dynamics. The VGGTs were born outside the FAO, within the CFS, so as to make people believe that the debate would be more democratized, but the game was rigged from the beginning and the peasant movements never understood it, then or now.

Born as "voluntary," the VGGTs depended on the goodwill of those governments that held power, which immediately removed any hope of change. The FAO, immediately declaring itself not responsible for the final document, made it clear that it was not its job to lobby governments for the most progressive measures. At most it could give some technical assistance if a few donors (the usual wolves from the North) put money on the table.

It was such an obvious manipulation operation that, in my naiveté, I thought it would provoke a very strong contrary reaction from LVC. So imagine my surprise when, on the contrary, they decided to enter the process, only to be present on stage in May 2012 with one of their leaders, Scapazzoni, to say how happy they were with the approval of this crucial instrument.

Ten years have passed, LVC has had time to realize that they got it wrong, but of course they never wanted to do a mea culpa about it, and today the agrarian reform issue has, in fact, disappeared from the world debate, while conflicts have increased exponentially everywhere, and there is discussion around: data, monitoring, best practices and how to improve land registries and formal land rights, i.e., whatever it takes to improve land markets in favor of the interests of the powerful (once it was only the North, now also China and international finance in general).

Still yesterday and today LVC is sitting there being fooled, as if they didn't understand that they got ripped off. Money for projects in the countries (of the South of course, because the governance problems that exist in the northern countries, typical of the unfulfilled rights of the Sami people in Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, all member countries of the FAO) are gone, so now the bottom line is being drawn: zero results, no exemplary countries to show for it, and so they think close the land issue forever.

Too bad it is reality that will impose itself on theory, and it will once again be land conflicts, masquerading as religious conflicts, that will once again impose themselves on our attention. Too bad because rebuilding a progressive alliance will take a long time and especially new faces, both at the level of governments and at the level of UN agencies and peasant movements. I, who spent my life fighting for these issues, ended up in the corner, retired obliged by the incompetent Brazilian director general (as I explained in my book A Manà), but at least I maintain a freedom of expression that many FAO colleagues have lost, I hope not forever.

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