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Rapid growth of emerging economies, emerging interest in biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels and recent volatility in commodity prices have led to a marked increase in the pace and scale of foreign and domestic investment in landbased enterprises in the global South. Emerging evidence of the negative social and environmental effects of these large-scale land transfers and growing concern from civil society have placed ‘global land grabs’ firmly on the map of global land use change and public discourse. Yet what are the processes involved in these large-scale land transfers? This paper provides a comparative analysis of legal and institutional frameworks and actual practices associated with large-scale land acquisitions in Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. Drawing on policy documents, interviews with government officials from diverse sectors and discussions with customary leaders and affected communities, we explore some of the deficiencies in legislation and practice which currently undermine the ability to safeguard customary rights in the context of large-scale land acquisition.