3 Uses for OpenLandContracts.org

By Kaitlin Cordes
October 17, 2017

Every once in a while, you find a tool or resource that helps you over and over in your work. For me, OpenLandContracts.org falls in this category. To highlight some of the ways this resource can be used, here are my three favorite ways in which I’ve used this repository of land contracts.

1. Conducting Research

I’ve turned to OpenLandContracts.org for multiple research projects, reports, and articles. Last year, for example, my colleagues and I published a report on grievancesarising from land-based investments, and how governments can better address these grievances in light of their legal obligations. Looking at contracts available on the repository helped us develop and refine a suggestion on how governments can seek to “shape” or “reshape” concession boundaries while staying within their contractual obligations.

I also turned to OpenLandContracts.org when researching and writing about the employment impacts of agricultural investments. The repository provides annotations (plain language summaries) of key contractual provisions. While this can help non-lawyers understand the “legalese” found in so many contracts, it also simplifies searching within contracts for particular issues. I used the “local employment” annotation category to find all the contracts that specifically address this topic. Reviewing the search results enabled me to describe how some governments have sought to establish employment targets or training requirements through contractual agreements.

A more circular example comes from our work with the International Senior Lawyers Project to develop Guides to Land Contracts for agriculture and forestry projects. I say circular because we developed those guides to help users of OpenLandContracts.org better understand the contracts on the repository—so of course we would need to review those contracts in order to develop the guides. Yet the guides have been taken up beyond the repository itself, serving as a useful resource on land contracts that I’ve seen referenced elsewhere. They wouldn’t have been nearly as useful, comprehensive, or credible if we hadn’t had the repository to draw on.

2. Developing and Leading Trainings

I had the pleasure of teaching at a training for African lawyers organized by the Land Policy Initiative earlier this year. The training covered land investments and land contracts, and I specifically led an entire day on negotiating land-related investment contracts. OpenLandContracts.org was the main source I relied on when seeking examples of how contracts deal with certain issues (including examples of provisions to avoid!), and I also used it to develop an interactive exercise for participants.

CCSI also offers an annual Executive Training on Sustainable Investments in Agriculture. One of the sessions included each year focuses on land contracts, and my colleague who teaches it also relies heavily on OpenLandContracts.org to develop material and to lead interactive exercises. Similarly, we’ve seen material from OpenLandContracts.org used by other trainers at externally organized trainings. (And for interested users who aren’t able to participate in trainings featuring the repository, OpenLandContracts.org also provides self-study training modules and an exercise!)

3. Supporting Suggestions for Better Contracting

Because of CCSI’s expertise around land contracts, I’m sometimes asked to review others’ work on contracts, including efforts to develop model contracts, model provisions, and other guidance. In the past several months, for example, I’ve provided comments and input on a draft regional investor-state model contract for agriculture projects, on a draft community-investor model contract developed for a specific commodity within a specific country, and regarding a new effort to develop international guidance on agricultural land investment contracts. For each of these, I’ve turned to OpenLandContracts.org to find examples of how certain issues have been treated, to examine how language has been crafted and could be emulated or improved (or avoided altogether), and to reflect on whether any gaps should be filled to ensure that new documents are sufficiently comprehensive. OpenLandContracts.org has provided a wealth of information that has informed my thinking, and that I’ve been able to subsequently pass on to other organizations.

Information contained on the repository also helps CCSI’s own thinking about better contracting practices. For example, we’re currently working with Namati, the legal empowerment organization, to develop a resource for communities and their advocates that can support their interactions with investors. For that project, we’ve gathered approximately 40 community-investor agreements, and our analysis of those forms the backbone both of our understanding regarding how these agreements have been developed to date and of our suggestions on how to improve them. But OpenLandContracts.org helps us to fill in the gaps that remain, pointing us to other issues and language to consider. Having this other set of agreements to draw on improves and sharpens our thinking.

My reasons for using OpenLandContracts.org may be particular to me, and I’m always interested in hearing how others have used the site. If you use OpenLandContracts.org in ways similar to or different from mine, I’d love to hear about it, either in the comments or via email (kaitlin.cordes@law.columbia.edu).

OpenLandContracts.org was launched in October 2015 by the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) with support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The repository currently includes more than 190 contracts and associated documents from 14 countries. To help stakeholders understand these often complex legal documents, OpenLandContracts.org also provides plain-language summaries, or annotations, of each contract’s key fiscal, social, environmental, operational, and human rights provisions.

Follow CCSI on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn for updates as more contracts are disclosed on OpenLandContracts.org. We welcome your questions, comments, and feedback and ask that you contact us by email (info@openlandcontracts.org).


Kaitlin Cordes is Head of Land, Agriculture, & Human Rights at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI). For further information about CCSI’s work on these issues, check out our website or contact us by email (ccsi@law.columbia.edu).