Land Commercialization, Gendered Agrarian Transformation, and the Right to Food (DEMETER)

Cambodia land transformation

This project examines changes in food security in the wake of land commercialisation from a right to food and gender equality perspective. It seeks to identify the conditions that need to be in place in order to ensure the realization of the right to food and gender equality.

About​ the project

  • Background

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    ​A number of forces – including transnational land acquisitions, domestic investors, migrants, conservation efforts, and government policies – have come together in recent years to put commercial pressure on land in the South and encourage its commodification. This has accelerated processes of agrarian transition, affecting rural livelihoods and impacting food security.

    It is likely that the outcomes of these processes differ for women and men. Existing data show that food insecurity is distributed highly unevenly, with women and girls disproportionately hungry. There also is evidence that women do not gain as much as men from agricultural modernization. And yet, studies show that food security improves when women control income and land.

    The right to food, codified in various international legal instruments, establishes a legal obligation for states to respect, protect, and fulfil the right without discrimination. It is a powerful tool to help achieve food security by holding governments accountable and by helping fight discrimination and exclusion.

  • Objectives

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    The project applies a right to food and gender equality perspective to examining changes in food security in the wake of land commercialization in two case countries, Cambodia and Ghana. It seeks to answer three research questions:

    • What gendered changes in livelihoods arise from contemporary processes of land commercialization, and how do these affect food security?
    • How do local, national, and international gendered power constellations and policies influence changes in food security?
    • How does the promotion of gender equality and the right to food affect changes in food security?

    The overarching goal is to strengthen knowledge, awareness, and debates about the relationship between food security, the right to food, and gender equality with an eye towards empowering women and men to claim their rights and encouraging governments to create the conditions to facilitate their realization. The project will provide evidence highlighting the importance of the right to food and gender equality for food security and examine the challenges to implementing these principles. Through training and policy dialogue, it will strengthen awareness of the relevance of gender-equality and the right to food among stakeholders at local, national, and international levels, and will animate them to weigh the research findings in adopting or advocating for rights-based and gender equitable food security policies.

  • Relevance

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    The accelerated commercialization of land has generated considerable debate and raised questions regarding its impact on food security. While some see in large-scale land deals long-awaited investments in agriculture and the opportunity for improving food security, others associate it with dispossession, increased poverty and hunger for vulnerable populations. Existing evidence suggests that outcomes are complex and depend on a variety of local conditions.

    The project will contribute to better understanding the effects of land commercialization and to filling three knowledge gaps. First, much of the contemporary literature on the issue focuses on large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors, and fails to place the phenomenon in a larger context of agrarian transition, including the policies and politics that guide such transition. Second, the new livelihoods resulting from land commercialization have a gender dimension, which has not been comprehensively studied. Third, there is a dearth of evidence regarding the effectiveness of the right to food and gender equality approaches to alleviating food insecurity, and of studies that examine processes of land commercialization from a right to food and gender equality perspective. By approaching contemporary pressures on land as part of a new phase of agrarian transition, examining its gendered outcomes, and injecting a rights perspective into the debate, the project will broaden existing evidence on the effects of land commercialization on food security and the power of human rights to affect these outcomes.

  • Highlights and important results

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    The process and magnitude of land and agricultural commercialization differ between the two case countries. Accordingly, changes in the access to land and natural resources are also uneven. In Cambodia, governmental policies and large-scale land concessions have triggered a significant reduction in access to farmed land, grazed land, forest and water areas for the majority of smallholders, promoting a radical change in cropping systems as farmers are transitioning almost exclusively to cash crops for export (namely cassava, cashew and rubber). Land sales and land losses are associated with a decline in food security. In contrast, land and agricultural commercialization processes in Ghana have caused fewer cases of land dispossession in spite of some variation between districts and households. While households in northern Ghana experience longer periods of food shortages and show less diverse food consumption patterns, there appears to be no strong correlation between agricultural commercialization and food shortages, particularly in situations where commercialization involves small and medium scale farmers producing food staples for own consumption and sale.

    The inequality effects of agricultural commercialization are diverse. In our study areas in Cambodia, salaried and self-employment activities have become an essential strategy to compensate for the reduction in cultivated and grazing areas and in access to natural resources, although wage employment remains mostly seasonal and casual. It is the main source of household income for recent in-migrants or native populations that have become landless or are left with little land. These tend to have lower incomes than those that gain most of their income from agriculture. In contrast, in Ghana, we find that households with diversified sources of income—both farm and on-farm—are better off than those who are only doing farming. In addition, farm households that participate in off-farm income earning activities also tend to have higher rates of commercialization than those that specialize in farming.

    Effects with regard to gender are equally diverse between the two countries. In Cambodia, we find indications of an increase in women’s decision-making power in agriculture, and engagement in economic diversification, notably wage employment and self-employment. We find no such effects in Ghana. On the contrary, there seems to be little change in the gender division of labour, including the organization of agriculture along women’s crops and men’s crops, a gender order that has functioned to keep women out of the commercialized agriculture value chain. Furthermore, agricultural production decision (e.g. what crops to grow on a plot) are made predominantly by men.

    Despite the lack of an explicit provision on the right to food, a review of Ghana’s constitution, statutory law, and jurisprudence allows us to infer the existence of a right to food within national law. In Cambodia, while different constitutional guarantees on the right to an adequate standard of living, gender equality and social security could be construed as protecting the right to food, the absence of a strong rule of law framework and the inaccessibility of judicial mechanisms in practice have limited the effectiveness of formal rights guarantees.

  • Geographic scope

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    • Cambodia
    • Ghana
  • Project website and links to P3

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