Land grabs are continuing long after Tryweryn

Julian Rosser says we should learn the lessons of what happened in Capel Celyn 55 years ago

It is now 55 years since Parliament passed an Act allowing Liverpool City Council to evict 48 people from their farms and homes in and around Capel Celyn village in Cwm Celyn, Gwynedd. The aim was to dam the valley, damn the local population and build the Tryweryn Reservoir. The case sent shock waves around Wales and beyond, spurring calls for more devolution of power and protection for threatened Welsh speaking communities.

But we still haven’t learnt the lessons. Tryweryns are still happening every day around the world. As with the people of Capel Celyn in the 1950s, similarly exploited communities feel that they are powerless, overlooked and under-represented. Many governments and élites in developing countries are offering up large swathes of land at rock bottom prices for large-scale mechanised farming, the production of biofuels, or other purposes with scant regard for the lives and livelihoods of those who may have farmed the land for generations.

The scale is truly breathtaking. Oxfam research demonstrates that in poor countries, an area of land the size of Wales has been sold off to foreign investors every 37 days over the past ten years. And the rate of the sell-off has been accelerating. A big increase in global food prices in 2008, plus rich countries’ encouragement of biofuels production, has made agricultural land an even more attractive investment proposition. South Sudan, the world’s newest country, was only established last year but already ten per cent of its surface area has been flogged off.

The World Bank is supposed to be the world’s leading anti-poverty organisation, funding development and poverty eradication programmes around the world, with a significant contribution to its funds coming from the UK taxpayer. Yet its Independent Evaluation Group estimated in 2010 that at any one time, around one million people are being displaced from their land and homes as a consequence of World Bank funded projects. Bear in mind, though, that the World Bank is only one of many players providing this type of finance, so the true figure could be even larger.

So what is the problem? People buy and sell land all the time, don’t they? The problem is that, all too often, the land is sold from under the feet of communities without their consent and without compensation. Buyers have been known to use violence to take possession of land. Traditional and communal land rights can be difficult to defend in court, especially for subsistence farmers or pastoralists with no disposable income to pay lawyers.

It is these transactions that Oxfam describes as ‘land grabs’. They are the land deals in which those who live on or make a living from that land are not consulted, treated fairly or properly compensated by the organisation, country or individual which buys the land. Just like Tryweryn, decades later the world has not learnt the lessons of the damage being done daily to communities all over the world.

Land grabs violate basic human rights and flout the principle of free, prior and informed consent of the land users, and are often underpinned by the obscene and unequal balance of power between buyers and those who live on the land.

Millions of poor families depend on their land to grow crops or rear livestock which they use to feed themselves or sell to earn a living. But without access to land, these activities can’t happen. Without their land they will simply struggle to survive.

The underlying consequences are far deeper, and affect an even greater number of people. The World Bank’s own research demonstrates that having secure access or ownership of land, free from threat of eviction, significantly reduces hunger and poverty. That is why Oxfam sees land grabbing as a key driver of hunger in a world where nearly a billion people go hungry every day. The irony is that so much good farmland is being sold off in countries often the worst affected by food shortages or famine. Many of these deals are not bringing investment in agriculture which will help local people eat.

Oxfam’s research in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, and Tanzania has revealed that the majority of agriculture-based land deals in Africa are for export commodities, including biofuels and cut flowers. In Mozambique, where approximately 35 per cent of households are chronically food insecure, a mere 32,000 out 433,000 hectares approved for agriculture investment between 2007 and 2009 were for food crops – that’s less than ten percent.

We urgently need to see investment in agriculture and food production in developing countries. Oxfam has 70 years experience of working with people in poverty in over 90 countries and believes we should be investing in small-scale farmers. Investment in co-operatives, food transportation, storage and processing can build resilient communities able to invest in education and healthcare. These are communities able to develop sustainable livelihoods.

All of this is why I took a journey in the rain this week. Not to Tryweryn but to Llanrhystud just south of Aberystwyth, home of the iconic Cofiwch Dryweryn mural, a memorial to a local Welsh protest against land grabbing over five decades ago. We wanted to remember that injustice, and highlight the new injustices going on today all around the world.

Oxfam is launching a global campaign to persuade the World Bank to freeze investment in large land deals for six months while it reviews its policies to prevent land grabbing. The World Bank can ensure that investments help not harm poor communities. Investment should be good news for developing countries, not lead to greater poverty, hunger and hardship.

Oxfam wants the World Bank’s freeze to send a strong signal to global investors to stop land-grabbing and to improve standards for:

  • Transparency – ensuring that information about land deals is publicly accessible for both affected communities and governments.
  • Consultation and consent – ensuring communities are informed in advance, and can agree or refuse projects.
  • Land rights and governance – strengthening poor people’s rights to land and natural resources, especially women, through better land tenure governance as set out by the Committee for Food Security.
  • Food security – ensuring that land investments do not undermine local and national food security.

As with so many banks these days, we own the World Bank. As a major investor the UK has a crucial role to play in influencing its policies. Oxfam is working with campaigners throughout the world to put pressure on our government to reform the system which makes some people very rich while depriving others of food. We need to make sure that we have truly learnt the lessons of Tryweryn by putting an end to land grabs the world over.

Julian Rosser is Oxfam Cymru Campaigns Co-ordinator. To find out more about the campaign visit

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