Spotlight series: Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

13th August 2015

The dynamics of poverty and agro-food systems are a focus for research and policy engagement institute PLAAS.

PLAAS logoLand is hot property, especially in Africa where there has been a rapid growth in land-based investments and a rising concern about land grabs. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the land which has been part of large-scale transnational land deals in recent years have been in Africa, as international buyers seek to take advantage of cheap land in the face of rising demands to meet food and energy needs. But this scramble does not always benefit the people living on or off the land.

These are some of the issues being grappled with by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), which focuses on the dynamics of chronic poverty and structural inequality in Southern Africa. Through its research, policy engagement, teaching and training, the emphasis is on the restructuring and contesting land holding and agro-food systems and the analysis of marginalised livelihoods in Southern Africa.

“Our mission emphasises the central importance of the agro-food system in creating and perpetuating poverty — and also in eradicating it,” explains PLAAS Information and Communications Officer, Rebecca Pointer.

PLAAS was founded in 1995. Originally named the 'Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies', it started out as a specialist unit in the School of Government, in the Economic and Management Sciences Faculty, at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in Cape Town.

Within a short time it developed a strong international reputation for high quality research and in 2009 the programme became an official Institute of the University and was given its current name.

The initial focus was South Africa but this grew to comparative work with other countries in the region, and then to work across Africa. More recently, PLAAS has moved to explore the role of BRICS in agriculture.

“We are not confined to one region, because we recognise that changes at a global level impact on changes at local levels,” says Pointer.

Inter-disciplinary research focuses on four broad themes: poverty, inequality and vulnerability; water and resource rights, farming, agro-food systems and agrarian reform and the social dimensions of fisheries and ecosystem management.

“Our work goes from looking at micro-local levels of people’s livelihoods to engaging with global systems and exploring the links between the different levels,” explains Pointer.

Pointer thinks the main challenge for PLAAS is to measure the impact of its work and to what extent it is influencing the debate. “Our engagement with the mainstream media is mostly limited to South Africa and we’re not reaching newspaper audiences in the rest of Africa,” she says.

Looking ahead, Pointer says that issues around 'water grabs', climate change, land governance, corporate investors on community land and the corporatisation of food systems across Africa will be increasingly on the PLAAS agenda.

Also the links between land and agricultural issues on the one hand, and social policy and social protection on the other will be an area to keep an eye on. “The focus here will be on the role of customary tenure and smallholder agriculture in supporting informal social protections and ‘welfare production’ and, beyond that, the role of rural economies in distributive regimes,” Pointer explains.

Along with partners in civil society, PLAAS will also be working on the power and influence of agribusiness corporations within the food system, both nationally and regionally, and exploring alternative paradigms for tenure reform in urban and rural areas, especially in the light of new land reform and agricultural development policies proposed, which Pointer describes as “reactionary” and “anti-poor”.