The U.S. is chairing the UN FAO Committee for Food Security’s intergovernmental negotiations on Voluntary Guidelines for the Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VG).  To date, these negotiations  have included over 70 countries, the private sector, multilateral institutions and some 50 civil society organizations (CSO).   By the end of October 2011 approximately 70% of the VGs have been negotiated and agreed to.  The US is hopeful that this process will be completed in early 2012.

The nature of these negotiations is unique in the UN system as civil society participates on an equal basis throughout the dialog process before consensus is reached among the members.  Civil society organizations have been very collaborative and brought much-needed field-level information to the discussion of the VGs.  The USG was frequently in agreement with the CSOs, and  publically aligned with them on the need to complete the VG before the Committee for Food Security or any other body takes on the highly charged issue of “land grabbing” under the rubric of Responsible Agricultural Investments.

Oxfam/America recently reported, “We are disappointed that final agreement on the Voluntary Guidelines was not reached, but recent negotiations demonstrate that all parties are serious in their efforts to devise a strong framework for responsible governance of land tenure. The US has played a constructive and positive role, facilitating the participation of civil society organizations, particularly social movements and farmers’ representatives.” Having the opportunity to chair this process was a tremendous honor as well as a great challenge.  At the end of the day, what is most important is that the VGs include a remarkable number of technically sound recommendations that will guide state and non-state actors in how best to deal with this complex issue. Further, the subject is being addressed in an open, transparent process that will help countries address food security concerns, reduce conflicts, promote trade and growth, and secure the rights of vulnerable groups, including women and indigenous people.

The USG continues to invest heavily in this area, for example, in Ethiopia, USAID’s ELTAP and ELAP programs provide smallholder farmers – both men and women — with documentation of their land rights for the first time.  These farmers report less concern that their land will be taken from them and have experienced substantial productivity gains.  In addition, the program provides livelihood alternatives for women through the new option of leasing land.  And in Mali, where recent press reports have cited problems of land grabbing, the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Compact is employing an integrated approach to agricultural development that will bring 13,000 acres of intensively irrigated agricultural land into production and secure land rights for over one thousand farming families.  These are just two of the more than two dozen land projects the USG is currently supporting.