U.S. National Action Plan to promote responsible business conduct should consider outward investment in large-scale agriculture | Land Portal

The U.S. Government is working to develop a National Action Plan to promote responsible business conduct abroad that is consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. This process provides an opportunity to reflect on how the United States can develop regulatory and voluntary measures that will help U.S. companies act responsibly and consistently with the UN Guiding Principles, regardless of the host country operating environment.


The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, a joint center of Columbia Law School and the Earth Institute, has submitted input to this process calling for the U.S. Government to seriously explore how the National Action Plan will address U.S. business conduct related to large-scale agricultural investments.


As the Center noted in its memo, in the past decade, investors have become increasingly interested in investing in agriculture in low- and middle-income countries, particularly through large-scale land acquisitions. These acquisitions are generally purchases of or long-term leases for large tracts of land. Although there is a lot of misinformation and gaps in understanding regarding the global scale of this phenomenon, a number of international institutions, researchers, and advocacy groups have sought to shed light on the situation. Current estimates from the Land Matrix assert that U.S. investors are leading this rush to acquire land abroad.


Agricultural investment is quite important, and, in some contexts, large-scale land acquisitions might be appropriate. However, many large-scale land acquisitions do not incorporate best practices in terms of responsible business conduct, and indeed contribute to negative human rights impacts on local communities and other stakeholders, such as forced evictions or dispossession from resources on which communities depend for their livelihoods. Such acquisitions have been described as “land grabs,” which the International Land Coalition defines as land acquisitions or concessions that have at least one of the following factors: “(i) in violation of human rights, particularly the equal rights of women; (ii) not based on free, prior and informed consent of the affected land-users; (iii) not based on a thorough assessment, or are in disregard of social, economic and environmental impacts, including the way they are gendered; (iv) not based on transparent contracts that specify clear and binding commitments about activities, employment and benefits sharing, and; (v) not based on effective democratic planning, independent oversight and meaningful participation.”


Although some international efforts have been made to provide guidance on responsible agricultural investment – most recently with the Committee on World Food Security’s Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems, which were adopted in October 2014 – there remains a great gap to fill in ensuring that outward investment in agriculture is conducted responsibly, transparently, and with respect for the human rights of workers, local communities, and other stakeholders.


Given the large number of U.S. investors involved in large-scale land acquisitions relative to investors from other countries, and the high potential for significant human rights abuses when such investments are not conducted responsibly, the Center has urged the U.S. Government to use the NAP process to consider what actions the U.S. Government could and should take to encourage responsible business conduct related to large-scale agricultural investments. This could include monitoring, reporting, or transparency measures similar to existing U.S. measures covering extractive industries investments. Furthermore, other government actions could include steps to ensure victims’ access to remedy or to exclude human rights violators from investment agreement protections.


The full memo is available at: https://ccsi.columbia.edu/files/2015/01/Columbia-Center-on-Sustainable-Investment-Memo-on-US-National-Action-Plan.pdf .  

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