As the size of the world’s population increases so too does the demand for land on which to house people, grow food and harvest resources which they increasingly demand
As the size of the world’s population increases so too does the demand for land on which to house people, grow food and harvest resources which they increasingly demand. Land is therefore becoming a scarce resource and a key commodity in which those with the financial means are looking to invest.
Fred Pearce describes ‘landgrabbing’ as the large scale buying up of farmland by international companies who use it to produce agricultural goods for global markets. While land grabs seem to make good business sense they are a huge and growing problem for the world’s poorest rural people. Local populations, who have worked the land for their own food needs or indeed for a small scale profit, are being removed, sometimes by force, in order to accommodate these powerful land purchases. The process has been heavily criticised for turning the land from a commonly held resource into a privately owned asset; with greater benefits then being provided for people and businesses outside the local area.
Some of the countries in Africa with significant proportions of their land being controlled by outside investors
Corn, biofuel base oil, palm oil, rice, rubber and soy bean have become some of the principle crops to be grown in this way in huge areas of the plains of Africa, the steppe of Russia, the rainforests of south America and the paddy terraces of south east Asia. African land is by far the cheapest available and so globally has become the area where most landgrabbing has been witnessed.
Those who are grabbing this land are often very wealthy individuals and businesses, representing key players in the agriculture industry. While some of the buyers are well known amongst city traders and in entrepreneurial circles, the majority are actually relatively unknown, even if the names under which their products are sold are household brands. The chain of production for farmed products from soil to shelf can be a long and complicated one and most landgrabbers are distanced from the final goods that are known to consumers as their products enter different processing chains for a wider range of products (for example in the case of palm oil which appears in many cosmetics as well as foodstuffs) and large scale trading on more open markets. Therefore it can very difficult to trace who exactly is responsible for landgrabbing.
This need for transparency is further complicated by the scale of land grabbing worldwide. Oxfam estimate that around 220 million hectares of land was grabbed or under an attempted grab between 2000 and 2010 (Oxfam, 2012), though little is found in any official records. No central register exists of land ownership in many countries and it is often assumed that unless a private company owns the land it belongs to the state rather than to the people who may have been farming it for many generations.
Past land grabbers have amassed their wealth from years of work at the grass roots of agriculture while more recently grabbers tend to be former traders who in buying the land see a chance to increase their profits. While many commentators see this wholesale purchasing of land as a form of neo-colonialism, in fact many new entrepreneurs are from both the developing and the developed world and include buyers from the Middle East and China.
Some groups have also bought up large sections of land, particularly in East Africa in order to support wildlife and landscape conservation. However, creating wildlife reserves and promoting ecotourism in them can also lead to local people being forced off the land in similar ways to that used for agriculture. In extreme cases, the land is promoted as a private game reserve where for a premium, wealthy tourists can hunt and fish within their boundaries.
The land that is grabbed, while often being remote, is usually of good quality and size as well as being well served for natural irrigation. Despite this, land is often priced very cheaply by the governments of the countries concerned. For example a 100,000 hectare plot in Ethiopia cost an Indian businessman £200 a day to rent: the equivalent of renting a football pitch for fourteen pence a day.
The land is seen by many purchasers as a secure and safe asset. Returns on food production projects are almost guaranteed and in the late noughties a lot of international banks became keen to fund agri-projects. For example, the World Bank promoted the development of “4 million km2 of underused land” in Africa, (World Bank, 2009) despite half a billion farmers living there.
While it may be easy to accuse the landgrabbers themselves of unethical purchases, one should not forget that these deals would not be possible without governments’ consents or a market for their products. Some of the world’s poorest countries, and especially those in West Africa, have under invested in domestic agriculture over decades and many see such inward investment as a way of making up for lost time in this respect. As Fred Pearce mentions, there is also evidence of links between the companies of potential investors and the funding of politicians within the host countries and the suggestion that the investors may be being given preferential treatment.
Palm oil fruits – a crop that has changed the way many products are manufactured and converted thousands of hectares of farmland and forest into plantations.
With land in short supply it is logical that increasing food production, even through foreign investment, should allow progress to be made in feeding the world’s hungry. In 2008 the world saw a global increase in food prices due to widespread droughts in many of the key food producing regions, such as central USA. Ministers in developed countries feared that this signalled the slow but sure start of a Malthusian apocalypse, whereby the increase in the number of people outnumbered the increase in potential food production and food prices would remain high as shortages took hold. Higher food prices can create a chain of economic failures in other sectors and many developing nation feared a repeat of the rebellions and riotous events that had struck during other periods of financial crises. Creating a rhetoric of duty and responsibility, the landgrabbers seized this opportunity and many governments were persuaded, some more forcefully than others, to relinquish land for the greater good.
Across many developing countries are tracts of land that have stayed under small scale cultivation by the same family for many generations. As more and more landgrabbers come in these people are being forcibly removed from their land with almost always no compensation and little help with their resettlement elsewhere. Fred Pearce notes that there is evidence to suggest that landgrabbing may create more refugees than climate change.
While developing country governments may truly believe that through landgrab investors they are help the financial buoyancy of their citizens, evidence from the landgrabs that have happened to date do not suggest this is so. There is a lot of indication that the large scale investors often do not approach their specific investments over the longer term: many of the early purchasers have already sold their land on and transferred their investments and profits elsewhere.
Oxfam are one such group who campaign against landgrabbing
(Source: Oxfam International)
Claims that these investors will provide the much needed food to feed those who are currently hungry also fall rather flat. One must remember that almost always the land that is grabbed is already being used for agriculture, albeit subsistence in nature and at a much smaller scale. Those who are removed from their land therefore are likely to become the ‘new hungry’ as they lose their ability to feed themselves from the land they tended.
Sadly the removed populations have few options and no real power against their own governments. This puts not only their livelihoods at risk but in the case of some of the more ancient isolated tribal groups, a very real threat to their culture and way of life. Some dwellers, such as those in large tracts of Sudan and Ethiopia are rounded up prior to the land acquisition and made to live in purpose built villages, something that Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned (Human Rights Watch, 2012).
Landgrabs can also threaten the natural elements of the landscape. Deforestation has been commonplace across West Africa and the construction of new roads to allow products in and out of some of the more remote parts of the continent have parcelled up the land in artificial ways, making both animal migrations and the routes of nomadic pastoralists difficult. It is often illegal for people to return to the land, many requiring written permission from the government or the new land owners, meaning some farmers on the outskirts of grabbed land may be prevented from accessing a key water hole that is needed to irrigate their own crops.
The global picture of landgrabbing is unfortunately for the most part a negative one, but it does not have to be. Some companies who have bought up land invest some of their money in local community projects such as building new schools and health clinics as well as ensuring that all their workers come from the displaced community. Some do not change anything about the land or the people and instead employ them as individual small holders who are then paid for their produce.
Some developed nations are starting to realise that landgrabbing does not on the whole deliver the benefits to a developing country to which investors and governments may claim. Landgrabbing appeared on the 2013 G8 agenda and there has been a wide call from these powers to create a more precise land matrix signalling who is buying up land in which areas.
More support of small scale farmers is also important. Small farmers produce sixty percent of the world’s food and on average deliver higher yields per hectare collectively than large plantations that use machinery. With relatively little investment, many of these farmers can start to turn their farms into food processing units too, increasing their profitability and making it harder to justify landgrabbing. Recognising and celebrating the success of smaller farmers may be the first step to ensuring that in future years, landgrabbing does not separate their heritage and their livelihoods from the land completely.
Human Rights Watch (2012) What will happen if hunger comes? Abuses against the indigenous peoples of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, Human Rights Watch Report
Oxfam (2012) Our Land, Our Lives Report, Oxfam International
World Bank (2009) Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant: Prospects for commercial agriculture in the Guinea Savannah zone and beyond, World Bank Report
Unless otherwise stated, all data in the above piece relates to figures taken from Fred Pearce’s lecture (March 2014)
The actions needed to turn a raw agricultural product into one more suitable for the next stage of trade.
The artificial watering of crops.
Of the view that as population numbers increase the world's ability to grow enough food to meet their demands will decrease.
Farming that produces livestock for meat, milk, wool, hide and other animal products.
A large farm concentrating on producing a single cash crop, usually for export.
The growing of crops to feed oneself and one's family, with a little left over for sale.
Students can investigate the number of everyday products they can find in their homes that are made with palm oil as an ingredient. They should then research the different parts of the world where palm oil is produced. Ask students what percentage of the products they found would be used every day in the countries where it is grown.
Using Sudan as an example, ask students to imagine themselves as prospective landgrabbers who are looking to farm a palm oil plantation, they can list all the factors which they feel are important and then using an atlas try to find the perfect spot. Using Google Earth students can then see if the land they have identified is used for plantations.
Students can list all the players involved in any landgrab and then place them on a scale which would indicate their relative power. This can lead into a discussion about what might have to change in order for landgrabbing to become more sustainable.
Land Grab or Development Opportunity? United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation Report
Future of Food and Farming
Follow the thing: Papaya
KS3: You are what you eat
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