The second day of the Forum built upon discussions around customary land tenure in the Mekong region, but with a focus upon private sector investment practices, particularly concerning agriculture and the potential impact on smallholder farmers, the rural poor, and the environment.
Responsible Agricultural Investing (RAI): Where from, Where to go?
Grahame Dixie (Executive Director, Grow Asia)
In setting the scene for the day, Dixie aimed to sketch out a narrative on responsible investing, observing how we have reached the present-day situation. The idea of Grow Asia as an organization is to encourage greater collaboration between the public sector, the private sector, and producers. By doing so, Dixie hopes that this will result in more equitable and sustainable investment and production systems.
As a historical frame to the presentation, in 2008 food prices shot up, farm profits increased, while stock markets crashed. A consequential concern was with the status of food security, and the many countries looked to foreign investment as a means to secure reliable food supplies. At the same time, in the context of a volatile economy, investment in food systems was seen as carrying great potential for a healthy return.
A polarized view emerged from this situation. Civil society complained about the nature of irresponsible investments, with socially and environmentally destructive outcomes. Meanwhile the private sector would promote good practices. This made it hard to understand what was really taking place on the ground. As a result, research by AgBiz was carried out, looking at 178 investments of the last 50 years. The study asked two questions. Firstly, they looked to understand what was really happening with investments. The study uncovered a mixture of successes and failures, with some business models working better than others, and that success frequently needed time. The second question asked what would happen if an investment was responsible. This was explored by retrofitting a responsibility framework over the existing investments (otherwise it would take too long to receive the necessary data). There were mixed positive and negative results, with land often acting as a troublesome component. It was found that if an agribusiness starts losing money, all responsibility goes out the window. What really helped was access to jobs, markets, and infrastructure.
As a result of the study, the Committee for Food Security developed RAI principles (CFS-RAI). However, there was no consideration as to how these could be implemented, highlighted by difference of opinion between government and private sector actors. In the ASEAN region, ministers showed an active interest in pursuing mechanisms for achieving responsible investment. They asked for a set of guidelines rather than principles, as something more practical that could be implemented. Grow Asia, in partnership with IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) assisted in the formation of these guidelines. CFS-RAI was refined to fit in the ASEAN context. There were three elements to frame the Guidelines:
Develop meaningful guidelines that can engage at the policy level.
Work with region experts to make sure that 10 quality guidelines are in place that can be delivered.
Embed the guidelines into the ASEAN institution under support with FAO and IISD.
A challenge was finding an appropriate mix of sticks and carrots in the guidelines and resulting policy. As a stick, the screening of companies has value, but there is the risk of causing resentment with the private sector. For carrots, there are benefits in achieving accessibility to the guidelines, reducing risks for both investors and producers, and aligning with existing policy mandates, rather than confusing the landscape with a whole new formulation.
During a Q&A at the end of the session, Dixie was asked how we can achieve greater involvement of the private sector in REDD+. He asserted that the private sector wants to see the practical side of things, so that they will not make mistakes. Getting the local community on board makes everything easier, a point that needs to be emphasized. Many companies are already building in good practices, so the emphasis is not on wholesale change, but building in extra components of responsible investment that are not yet followed.
Check further details on the 3rd Mekong Land Forum