Last week, a United Nations expert panel issued a harsh report expressing concern over the construction of a $12 billion steel project in Odisha, India, financed by the South Korean steel conglomerate POSCO. The project reportedly threatens to forcibly displace over 22,000 people and disrupt the livelihoods of many thousands more. The forests and fields now claimed by the Indian government to build the sprawling project have long been occupied by locals, who rely on the land for their livelihoods.
As I demonstrated in my Brooklyn Journal of International Law article last year, the tension between aggregate economic growth and the property rights of vulnerable groups is a longstanding development challenge. Often, growth-enhancing land acquisitions financed by foreign investors forcibly displace the original resource users and ignore their property rights claims, intensifying property insecurity and resource scarcity — even while bringing macroeconomic growth.
Legally, governments should protect the rights of all their citizens — rich and poor. But the customary rights of subsistence local resource owners are too often ignored by elites, who sometimes even pocket kickbacks from the transnational investments that displace these local resource users. In India, residents of Odisha decry government ineptitude and corruption for jeopardizing their property rights and livelihoods. POSCO likewise criticizes the government for not effectively resolving land disputes, which have delayed construction for almost eight years. If rights were fairly recognized and adequate compensation granted to current users, then both local owners and aspiring investors who want to play by fair rules would be better off.
Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, stressed that “forced evictions constitute gross violations of human rights,” in her statement regarding the Odisha steel project. But what can be done when governments fail to protect human rights and global companies like POSCO stand to benefit?