• Grahame Dixie, Executive Director, Grow Asia

Promoting Socially Responsible Investments in Agriculture

BANGKOK, THAILAND – I recently attended the 2nd Regional Land Forum, organised by the Mekong Region Land Governance group, where agricultural practitioners and leaders joined to discuss smallholder tenure security and solutions to land governance problems emerging in South East Asia.

I have been following the debate around large-scale investment in agriculture since 2009, at the peak of the global food crisis. Product prices increased in real terms, triggering huge interest from the private sector to invest in farming. Consequently, concerns over “land grabbing” emerged from some civil society actors and campaigners. The concept of responsible agriculture investment has been in the spotlight ever since, with some believing that any guidelines or formal principles are attempts to “greenwash” the situation.

Here in South East Asia, the blame for irresponsible agricultural investing has typically been directed at China and Vietnam. Times are changing, however, and the sophistication, insight and level of knowledge on the situation in Asia has significantly improved. The Regional Land Forum was an example of the developments that have taken place since 2009.

We heard how both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments are drawing up guidelines for agricultural investors to ensure they are more responsible. Other Mekong countries are also developing guidelines for large-scale agriculture investment, consulting with a pool of multi-sector stakeholders. Importantly, they are drawing on the insights and intricacies of local and international guidelines, along with the policies of financial and business institutions.

These guidelines aim to set the parameters of responsible investment behaviour. We heard some encouraging examples from Vietnam’s tea sector and from Lao PDR, where the government triggered a review following concerns by that land concessions were causing unhappiness in local communities.

Today’s challenge

The challenge now is consistency. The main concerns expressed by attendees at the forum was that there are multiple versions of guidelines around the region and globally, creating unnecessary confusion and complexity. Now, we need to increase awareness of the relevant guidelines among those affected and build capacity to deliver against them.

There was an important discussion as to whether the benefits of being a responsible investor are sufficient in themselves. This includes consumer support and licence to operate – both locally and nationally – and the added capital value of an agricultural asset which adheres to responsible investment principles. We considered whether there is a need for legal mandates and enforcement, especially to counter any differences in power between major agribusinesses and smallholder farmers.

Establishing regional guidelines: Invitation to join Grow Asia’s public consultation

To address these concerns and help harmonize standards, Grow Asia is actively involved in setting new regional standards for agricultural investment, which will apply across the ASEAN region. Our goal is to promote socially responsible agricultural investments in the region that contribute to food security, nutrition and sustainable livelihood.

The ASEAN Secretariat has requested Grow Asia’s expertise and network to help develop the official ASEAN Guidelines on Promoting Responsible Investment in Food, Agriculture and Forestry. The draft guidelines are now in their third iteration, having been reviewed by ASEAN Member States, representatives from civil society and agribusinesses in the private sector. The goal is to gain approval of the guidelines by the Regional Council of ASEAN Ministers of Agriculture in October this year.

The first public consultation took place in Indonesia in April this year, and a second will occur in Singapore on 21 June.

We welcome the expertise of the Grow Asia network, and would value your involvement in the discussions. Please contact Ishwinder Kaur, Grow Asia's Government Engagement Manager via ishwinder@growasia.org if you would like to join the second public consultation, or for more information.

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