Working for land rights – with nuance, but a firm commitment

He has worked at CDE for 30 years – until recently as co-leader of its Sustainability Governance Impact Area – and is one of the leading figures behind the global Land Matrix network. The latter is a renowned, scientifically supported network that documents land deals by international investors. Shortly before his retirement, Markus Giger earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the topic. His is the story of a scientist who did not view himself as one for many years.

“I’ve always found differentiated insights exciting”: Markus Giger. Picture: At an event in Bern, 2016, photo by Corina Lardelli

When the Land Matrix Initiative publishes one of its reports every four or five years, pulses rise not only at many internationally engaged agencies, but also in the editorial offices of quite a few publications. That’s because the global network’s data and analyses are often controversial: they showed, for example, that 39 percent of cross-border agricultural land deals occur, at least partly, in biodiversity hotspots – and 54 percent involve crops that consume a lot of water. These and other headline findings emerged from the 2021 Land Matrix report.

Markus Giger has been one of the driving forces behind the preparation and public release of these data and analyses. Together with other scientists and NGO representatives, he has pushed for more transparency around large-scale land deals and for the land rights of local populations ever since the founding of the Land Matrix Initiative in 2010.

Despite the international fame of the Land Matrix, including its selection by The Guardian as one of the most important development policy data platforms, Markus Giger has never made a big fuss about his achievements. Quite the opposite: Anyone who meets him quickly notices that he is not the type to call a lot of attention to himself. “He is a prudent doer, engaged and always ready to step in where there is a fire burning – and to look for ways to put it out”, confirms a long-time colleague.


And there have been many “fires”. For example, in 2008, when it became known that the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics wanted to lease 1.3 million hectares of land in Madagascar. Maize and palm oil were to be grown on the land and shipped to South Korea – some of it for biofuel production. “When I read that, it almost knocked me out of my chair,” says Markus Giger. Fortunately, he explains, the land deal didn’t go through as planned. The hunger for land in those days was not limited to Madagascar – it impacted numerous developing countries. “That galvanized a lot of us.” And so, the Land Matrix was born.

“Land deals continue to drive deforestation of the last remaining natural tropical forests”, he says in an interview in 2021.

While the topic of land deals gradually became an object of passionate dedication, Markus Giger continues to describe the related problems with sober calm; he lists examples and notes that such “mega deals” are only part of the story – but goes on to add: “When you hear that such and such amount of land was cleared to grow palm oil again, it really hurts.”


What is it that hurts the most?

It varies. Even back when I was working in Indonesia in the 1980s, we witnessed virgin forest being cleared for palm oil plantations. I passed through areas where there were only monocultures and a few small villages scattered in between. The monoculture landscapes were an eyesore compared with the multifunctional, culturally shaped landscapes that you found in less-affected areas of Sumatra. And when you know that this is increasing, taking away people’s ancestral lands and way of life, eroding biodiversity, and exacerbating the climate crisis with deforestation, you ask yourself: What does this mean for us once it’s all gone?

How can this negative spiral be stopped?

(grins) It’s a question of whether pessimism or optimism prevails.
(reflects) You shouldn’t underestimate people’s ability to innovate. Things can suddenly come into being that you would never have believed possible. And maybe the day will come when reason prevails and those with decision-making power say: Now is the time not just to talk, but to truly act.


While Markus Giger became increasingly involved with governance issues over the years at CDE, his degree in agronomy from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and his studies at the Institut Agronomique Méditerranéen in Montpellier, where he focused on rural development, still come through here and there. So, too, now. “Aspects of the solutions – innovations – have to come from the technical sciences.” As with renewable energy or digitalization. “Because it’s extremely hard to change governance, let alone human nature. Technical innovations are easier.”

Portrayed by his colleague Karl Herweg, CDE

He believes new technologies also have a key role to play in agriculture. Due to rapidly advancing climate change, there is a need for new, faster adaptations in crop growing, animal husbandry, and veterinary medicine. “When a humid area transforms into a semi-arid landscape within a relatively short time, this creates a need for new cultivation methods and plants that local farmers aren’t familiar with. Local knowledge alone isn’t enough to cope.”


Development cooperation and rural development: On the website of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), where Markus Giger is listed as an independent expert and Switzerland’s member of the Commission on Science and Technology, the list of his mandates appears long. And it would be even longer if it weren’t just a selection of his work.


After graduation, he worked for the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Sumatra for three years, learning the lingua franca of Indonesia. “In the beginning, I thought I wouldn’t understand anything about this huge, very culturally exciting country. After a year, I thought I knew how it worked and could write a book about it. After three years, I knew: You’ll never write a book about it, you’re just scratching the surface.”

At a training course in Madagascar in 2000

His next stop after Indonesia was Rome – specifically, the World Food Organization (FAO). As a young agricultural economist, he signed on there as part of a training programme running in various countries, including Pakistan and Myanmar, “but the first thing I did was go back to Indonesia for three months.” Then, when he later returned to Switzerland, he decided to stay. In 1993, he joined CDE, working on numerous consulting mandates for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which eventually took him virtually everywhere in the global South. “It’s not like I’ve always been on the road. But I’ve been at CDE for a long time and was frequently given the chance to assume operational tasks, which also required stays in the field.”


A long time – that’s almost 30 years. “I guess I’m someone who prefers to stick with it once he’s made up his mind about something.” He has also stayed because the topics and functions he worked on or held have changed over the years; in step with the processes of change at CDE itself.

What do you mean by that?

I used to say that, at CDE, I was working at an interface between science and practice. I didn’t produce knowledge myself. Instead, I viewed myself as someone actively involved in the implementation of scientific knowledge. Helping to build that bridge interested me. When CDE’s emphasis shifted from implementation projects to research projects, I realized that I had begun writing scientific papers rather than reports to SDC. Over time, I also assumed leadership roles and participated in new networks like the Land Matrix and the Afgroland international research consortium.


In the Afgroland project, CDE researchers collaborated with scientists from East African institutions to study the local impact patterns of transnational land deals.

With Boniface Kiteme, Director of CETRAD, 2021 in Kenya

And what are the patterns?

We found that issues of land rights and land access present themselves differently in each country. There’s no black or white; instead, the results are very nuanced. I’ve always found differentiated insights exciting. Plus, similar to the Land Matrix, it was wonderful to collaborate with such diverse partners who manage to come together and work as a team.


That leaves the loaded question. Why bother writing a doctoral dissertation shortly before retiring? Markus Giger answers by first explaining why he didn’t do it earlier: “I didn’t see myself in an academic career.”

Two years ago, however, he realized he had already published “a nice package” of scientific articles on the topic of land deals. “Then it occurred to me I could turn it into a dissertation.” And because he was reducing his workload anyway, there was time for it. “It’s cool when you can work on a chapter for a whole week and not have a thousand other things come up. It was fun, yeah.”

During the presentation of his dissertation, December 2022

By the end of 2022, he’d completed his doctorate. Though he might have reached the age to retire, he views retirement with some unease. “At the moment, I can’t see myself as a retiree who just spends his time taking trips.” For now, that’s also not necessary, as he still has a number of mandates to carry out for CDE: the Land Matrix, of course, and also supervision of some young scientists.

What do you tell the young scientists you oversee?

(thinks for a while) Do what makes you happy.
(then with a laugh) And don’t take too long with your dissertation.