By Kaitlin Cordes
Two years ago, we launched OpenLandContracts.org—the world’s first global repository of publicly available investor-state contracts for land, agriculture, and forestry projects—with big hopes and many questions. These contracts are often negotiated in secret and are difficult for local communities, citizens, and even other government representatives to access. Our hope in developing the repository was to demonstrate that contract disclosure is feasible and valuable—for instance, helping to increase understanding of contracts’ implications, to improve accountability, and to support better negotiating and monitoring. But while we knew our goals, we weren’t sure of the outcomes. Would we be able to find more contracts? Would the repository prove useful? Could we leverage it to advance discussions and efforts focused on land deal transparency?
As our two-year anniversary approaches, it’s time to reflect on our achievements, challenges, and what the future may have in store.
A lot to be proud of…
The OpenLandContracts.org database has more than doubled in size. We launched with 69 contracts from 8 countries; the site now hosts 154 unique contracts from 14 countries. This is a number that we could only dream of when we started—we had no proof at the time that this many publicly available contracts existed (and we’re not in the business of leaking). The repository also now has nearly 40 associated documents—forest management plans, social agreements, original language versions—providing further context to the contracts.
The repository itself has also improved. We’ve made it more user-friendly and have enhanced its search functionalities. New features like the clips tool allow you to compare provisions across contracts, and to save interesting ones for later.
From our starting point two years ago, OpenLandContracts.org has made it easier for anyone to access, understand, and assess land contracts. It’s not just a central repository. Each contract is annotated with plain language summaries of key provisions. All contracts have been converted to text, increasing searchability and accessibility. The repository also offers multiple resources—guides, training modules, video tutorials—designed to help site use and contract comprehension.
And it’s being used in interesting ways. Our mini-grant recipients illustrate two diverse uses: empowering communities in Cameroon to monitor contractual commitments that are relevant to them, and sourcing information for a series of news articles on land deals in Cambodia. Last week, we highlighted how leading researchers at International Institute for Environment and Development use OpenLandContracts.org for both research and policy work. The repository has also helped advance dialogue on transparency of land investments, at international fora, and within specific countries.
…Yet challenges remain
We’ve helped change the game when it comes to accessing publicly available land contracts, but we’re still far behind when compared to transparency efforts in the extractive industries. Our sister site, ResourceContracts.org, features more than 1,500 oil, gas, and mining documents, including 535 annotated contracts, from 90 countries. Local partners have also developed five country-specific repositories of extractive industry contracts, while OpenLandContracts.org is still waiting to get its first country site off the ground.
Why these differences? A few reasons, in my opinion.
First, we’re playing catch up. Calls for transparency around extractive projects have a longer history. Greater pressure has led to more disclosures, allowing stakeholders either to see benefits of transparency or at least to realize that the sky doesn’t fall when contracts are disclosed. In the land space, on the other hand, less pressure and limited examples have meant that governments, companies, and development finance institutions have few incentives to move proactively towards transparency.
Second, and relatedly, there’s not a comparable infrastructure that has helped normalize the idea of transparency. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative hasn’t solved all of the deep social, political, and environmental problems entrenched in the extractive industries, but it has helped advance transparency of extractive-related payments, and, more recently, has put its weight behind contract disclosure. And while the Open Government Partnership is more industry- and sector-neutral, its focus on natural resources (and commitments by governments around them) has remained predominantly grounded in extractives. Even the International Finance Corporation treats these investments differently, requiring their extractives clients to disclose information on investor-state contracts, but declining to place similar requirements on their agribusiness clients. Thus, although most leading guidance on responsible land and agricultural investments encourages transparency, there’s no backing from dominant institutions to turn those encouragements into concrete outcomes.
Finally, the scale of what is possible might be different. Even in a world of perfect transparency, we might never reach disclosure in 90 countries. In many places, for example, land transfers for agriculture projects do not require investor-state agreements or licenses; rather, landowners can transfer land directly to companies without significant government involvement.
Of course, numbers are only one metric, and only one challenge. Ensuring that disclosed and accessible contracts are used, and are effective in supporting efforts for change, is another. And it’s a big one. This takes me to our goals for the future…
What would we like to see at the end of the next two years? Here are a few key objectives:
- Contract disclosure as a standard practice by standard-bearers; this means governments, companies, financial institutions, and others that are willing to lead by example.
- Documented use of the repository by the full range of stakeholders for whom it could be useful.
- Better evidence on how contract disclosure can support effective change… and, more importantly, actual change for the better in practice.
We look forward to working with partners around the world—from governments, civil society, development finance institutions, and the private sector—in pursuit of these goals. I hope you’ll join us.
Kaitlin Y. Cordes is head of Land and Agriculture at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI). OpenLandContracts.org was launched in October 2015 by CCSI with support from the UK Department for International Development.
Follow CCSI on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for updates as more contracts are disclosed on OpenLandContracts.org. We welcome your questions and feedback, as well as notices of other available contracts or stories of how the repository is being used; please contact us at email@example.com.