LAND GRABBING: A GLOBAL ISSUE
The buying up of arable land by outside interests is a relatively new but harmful phenomenon that throws off the forecasts of economists and politicians. The scale of this land grab is all the more disturbing in light of its apparent irreversibility. The countries doing the buying are not confident in the ability of global markets to adequately feed their populations in the future.
The people, many of whom are poor and at times require international food aid, are being dispossessed of their arable soils, agricultural lands and ways of life. The benefits are accruing to wealthy countries and industrial conglomerates that are exploiting foreign farmland and then “repatriating” the food produced or the operating profits. Against this backdrop, who owns what and who owns whom? Are we witnessing, as some observers claim, the dawning of a global neo-colonial land grab?
By buying up farmland, foreign countries primarily aim to ensure their food self-sufficiency.
Large tracts of arable land—amounting to hundreds of thousands of hectares—are being bought up around the world. The buyers are mostly wealthy countries, often oil producers and/or lacking solid or viable agricultural structures. These include Japan, Libya and the Arab world. In so doing, they hope to secure food supplies for their populations through offshore production on the agricultural lands they now own.
Other more populous and/or developing countries, such as India or China, are casting an envious eye abroad since their own agricultural lands are no longer sufficient to feed their large populations. These countries are reliant on supplies of agrofuels, as well as food.
National governments are not the only buyers. In a number of countries, investors pay fire-sale prices for farms that are abandoned or fall into disrepair. They then invest in modern equipment, state-of-the-art inputs and proven farming methods to maximize production. In countries such as the Ukraine, investors snap up inexpensive land in good condition and agricultural structures adapted to mechanization. This considerably reduces the investment required to set up operations and farm the land. These companies usually employ local workers, although newly modernized infrastructure and equipment means that the workforce can be greatly reduced. Exerting such a stranglehold on the local population and local resources is tantamount to neo-colonial land grab, a phenomenon that has been decried by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
According to Jacques Diouf, former Director General of the FAO, a small number of countries and companies are buying up millions of hectares of agricultural land in the developing world with one exclusive goal in mind: ensuring their own long-term food supplies. This leads to situations in which the submission of poor countries is taken for granted, as these latter are obliged to produce food for wealthy countries to the detriment of their own sometimes-starving populations.
Peasant farmers often fall victim to land grabs because they lose their ancestral rights.
ALARMING STATISTICS (AND ATTITUDES)
Many countries have yet to adopt laws to protect their rural populations. Around the world, non-forest lands that are uncultivated but suitable for agricultural activities total an estimated 445 million hectares. This is the equivalent of one-third of all lands currently cultivated worldwide, amounting to 1.5 billion hectares. More than one-half of this exploitable land is found in a total of 10 countries, six of which are in Africa (Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Madagascar, Chad and Zambia).
The global land grab has been in full swing since the 2008 food and financial crisis. The World Bank noted that the 463 projects that it listed between October 2008 and June 2009 accounted for at least 46.6 million hectares of cultivable land, most of which is located in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to various on-the-ground surveys designed to support the World Bank’s report, 21% of these projects were still in operating phase, while over 50% of them had achieved initial development and nearly 70% had been approved by the countries in question. Nevertheless, the World Bank downplayed the importance of these findings by declaring that the overall interpretation of the land-grab phenomenon was in all likelihood skewed by the media.
STRIKING A BALANCE
In 2011, as the global arable land grab was well underway, various international benchmarks were set to ensure that investments by wealthy countries were not used solely to ensure food imports, but also contributed to the development of poor countries, particularly rural populations who are this phenomenon’s first victims.
That is all well and good for nations who, depending on the political systems and structures in place, will be allowed or obliged to follow certain rules when recognized official bodies issued thinly veiled global guidelines. But how can basic fairness be ensured when companies or industrial conglomerates seek to buy up foreign lands? For these entities, land grabs are not a matter of good (or bad) governance; they are merely agro-business, pure and simple.
The agricultural sector is of increasing strategic importance to investors. Fertile land is the only true and lasting human legacy. It is hardly surprising that in a world dominated by power and money, farmland is destined to become a “safe haven” like gold. Perhaps one day it will also become a source of global conflict if international rules are not established in time.
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