The ongoing pandemic and the formal and informal responses to its spread have very direct impacts on the food and nutrition security of people in all parts of the world. Strong concerns have been voiced that the global health crisis could turn into a global food crisis. Not only are food chains disrupted and some countries started to restrict food exports or begun hording staple foods, but lockdowns also prevent people from pursuing their livelihoods, accessing their fields, selling their crops and might even lead to people losing their land to encroachment by opportunistic third parties. In some countries, there is a movement of populations out of the urban areas and into the countryside, which has the potential to increase the pressure on scarce resources, specifically arable land and water. The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to impact not only short-term food security but threatens the resource rights of the poor and can create long term negative effects on food security.
Concrete threats to resource rights occur where governments limit their land administration services, land conflicts remain unresolved (e.g. when arbitrations or mediations are put on hold), formal and informal protection measures erode (e.g. when land management bodies cannot meet) or third party support to resource governance is restricted. These are all concrete, short-term effects of the pandemic and already visible to various degrees in different contexts. It is difficult to say at this point in time in how far these threats to resource rights are systematic and widespread, so far they seem to be rather incidental. However, as Alex de Waal recently pointed out, the secondary effects of the pandemic might have much more significant impact on economies and societies in the medium and long-term than the already visible effects suggest. Among the key secondary effects will be the policy responses to economic downturns and the increasing food insecurity resulting from the pandemic as well as the measures taken against it.
The global agricultural (trade) system has long been geared towards food security ensured through large-scale industrialized farming which had significant impact on the policy choices of governments in developing economies and on the distribution of agricultural land, including the redistribution of land among food producers. In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the role of smallholder farming in ensuring food security and the relevance of smallholders for sustainable and resilient agriculture. Smallholder farming seemed to be getting a broader lobby and better support. This also resulted in initiatives to secure the land rights of smallholder farmers with the support of international donors and national and local governments.
The policy responses to the COVID-19 epidemic have the potential to reverse the trend of bolstering the role of smallholders in food production, despite the great advantages that domestic value chains based on small-scale production can have in the context of volatile global markets, and despite the crucial contribution of smallholder farming to social and political stability. Faced with growing food insecurity and even famine, national governments and international donors might revert to apparent quick fixes and traditional recipes, focusing on large-scale farming and trade. It is not yet certain that this is happening on a significant scale. However, it would not be the first time that policy reactions to food security threats come with significant negative impacts for the rural poor. Pushing industrialized farming can bias land governance against customary rights holders, favoring the acquisition of land for increased, assumedly modern and efficient production and force trade-offs between long-term development goals and short-term gains in production.
When economies are hit by recession, governments and international actors try to strengthen and support key sectors. Major economies turn to their industrial sector, such as the German government that is considering special measures to strengthen the car manufacturing industry. In the global South, extractive industries and the agricultural sector are commonly the key contributors to economic growth. Natural resources contribute directly and indirectly to economic stability as well as to food and nutrition security. While recent research shows that smallholder farming plays as significant part in this and has the potential to contribute even more, and while previous experiences show the added value of focusing support on local initiatives to improve food and nutrition security (and of strengthening women in particular), there is a real risk that despite good intentions vulnerable groups and those with insecure tenure rights will suffer from medium and long-term responses to the economic and food security effects of the pandemic.
Resource security and food security are intricately linked. People who depend on access to land for their livelihoods and nutrition need secure access to land to be food secure. Investments in land and agricultural intensification on any scale require secure property rights as well as secure access to water. If governments in the South and other development actors come under pressure from recession and shrinking revenues, they might be tempted to opt for large-scale, industrialized agriculture as the safest bet to safeguard their economies and ensure food security. In that case, smallholder farmers are not only likely to suffer economically, with worsening tenure security in many contexts, but conflicts around land could increase with even more severe long-term outcomes.
To ensure that vulnerable populations are not the victim of policy responses and secondary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and development actors need to ensure that existing resource rights standards such as the Voluntary Tenure Guidelines are upheld and the lessons of previous big push approaches for intensified agriculture are not forgotten: smallholder farmers need to be at the center of interventions and they need to be part of the development of solutions rather than the passive object of interventions. Resource security and food security go hand in hand. Land and resource rights of the poor must be at the center of sustainable, conflict-sensitive responses to economic downturns and food insecurity in the global South in the wake of COVID-19.