All over the world, companies and investment funds are buying up land to use for agriculture or mining, which is having a huge impact on the environment and local residents. Companies, aid organizations, provincial and national governments – some of them are facilitating land grabbing but are also working together to find solutions. It is precisely this dynamic that intrigues researcher Nienke Busscher. She has visited Argentina several times to find out first-hand what does and does not work.
Text: Nynke Broersma, Communications department / Photos: Elmer Spaargaren and Nienke Busscher
Busscher has just returned to the Netherlands from Argentina. After almost six years of conducting research into land grabbing, Busscher is now back in Groningen and is the coordinator of the Liveable and Promising Groningen knowledge platform. This platform aims to bring together everything that we know so far about the earthquakes in Groningen and in particular, to ensure that this knowledge is used more effectively. Those involved in the platform share their knowledge by organizing symposia and lectures but also by visiting politicians in The Hague. Busscher: ‘This knowledge is essential for developing responsible policies, in which people are hopefully heard.’
Events in Groningen and Argentina may seem as though they are worlds apart; it is impossible to compare the violence associated with land grabbing with the injustices here. Yet there are also similarities: denial, procedures, uncertainty, waiting, rules. Busscher: ‘In Argentina, too, people often run into an enormous amount of red tape when trying to protect their rights.’
Many local residents in Argentina have no formal land rights, simply because they have never needed to – until the moment that a company wants to buy their land. Who has more rights in this situation; someone who has lived on the land for decades without formally owning it, or a company that officially buys the land? ‘Land grabbing creates a clash between the formal and the informal system,’ explains Busscher. And that leads to conflicts about ownership.
Launching a formalization procedure can be an effective preventive weapon in the fight against land grabbing. If residents prove that they have lived on the land for at least 20 years, in many cases they can still obtain land rights. But it’s certainly not an easy path to take; the process can take years to complete. Busscher has teamed up with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and churches, which in many cases lend a helping hand and inform residents about their options. Busscher: ‘Especially in areas where there is limited access to education, residents don’t have the knowledge to initiate a procedure themselves. They don’t know what their rights are, or they haven’t got a clue where to start because of the bureaucracy.’
People can also exert influence by taking part in protests, says Busscher. This ramps up the pressure, which often results in some provincial governments deciding to cooperate with NGOs in so-called state–civil society initiatives. These collaborations have come under strong criticism from some academics who have argued that governments are only interested in taking part because they want to gain or protect their political power. But Busscher’s research shows that these initiatives can also help the local community because they still help many residents to obtain land rights.
Such state–civil society initiatives work but they are not the be-all and end-all, concludes Busscher, after spending several months working alongside two organizations. There are plenty of obstacles in the way. Busscher: ‘The national government is actively attracting international companies in the hope of paying off its foreign debt. Even within government agencies, there are different opinions about how a province should develop.’ In addition, many residents and activists all over the world have been murdered during demonstrations or when trying to defend their land. Formal land rights are by no means enough to prevent this violence.
And then there’s the role that we play – because companies are responding to increasing consumer demand. Do we need to change our purchasing behaviour? Busscher won’t and can’t point fingers. Nevertheless, she does think it’s important that we don’t just grab items off the shelf but instead take a moment to think about what we’re buying. ‘Take toilet paper, for example. We use it every day but usually have no idea that people living next to a tree plantation face all kinds of problems, such as a growing shortage of drinking water. If you’re aware of that, you can make a decision based on knowledge and information.’
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Busscher is committed to sharing her findings, also outside the University. Last year, for example, she spoke at the Noorderzon festival. What is it that drives her? It all started when she was on holiday in Indonesia with her father. Everyone in the group she was travelling with ignored the people that they saw living in poverty, and that really struck a chord. ‘So, I suppose my interest in this field is partly driven by idealism. As a researcher, that can sometimes be difficult. You’re supposed to be objective but you’re also influenced by your own standards and values. And I definitely have those!’
During her PhD defence, Busscher was really put to the test. ‘Are you a researcher or an activist?’ She can still remember her answer: ‘If you conduct your research professionally, and try to listen to everyone, then you can still be an excellent objective researcher and at the same time bring about change,’ she says with a spark in her eye.
Busscher’s support for the formalization of land rights also raises questions. Isn’t this process forcing residents to take part in the formal system? There is a real need for a greater understanding of conventional (informal) land rights, as well as a need to listen earnestly to the concerns of residents, responds Busscher, especially on the part of the companies that buy up the land. But as long as the underlying injustices such as violence, a lack of knowledge and the provision of basic needs are not solved, initiating proceedings seems to be the best way for residents to defend themselves for the time being. Busscher: ‘So, it’s vital that this is stimulated and continued.’
Flying all over the world to research the social and ecological impact of large-scale projects can sometimes seem quite counter-productive. This is another reason for Busscher to settle down in Groningen. Going back to Argentina to start a new research project would be a major upheaval for her in more ways than one – but she doesn’t seem to have ruled it out. She would like to take the knowledge that she has gained here in Groningen back with her to Argentina. ‘They are also experiencing earthquakes that are probably caused by fracking.’
As she’s talking, she seems to realize just how much she misses doing research. And what is it in particular that she misses? With a lengthy sigh, she says: ‘Ahh, learning the language, arriving in Buenos Aires and thinking “what have I got myself into?”, and then finally reaching your goal. Just doing it!’
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