Food Justice

Land Grabbing

Land Grabbing

December 7, 2012

In recent years, the large-scale acquisition of land traditionally used by local communities, a practice known as “land grabbing” has accelerated exponentially. The results have been insidious: record levels of hunger, displacement and environmental degradation.

And in a time of economic uncertainty, investors, including governments, corporations and individuals, view farmland as profitable and reliable investment. Analysis by Oxfam of thousands of such land deals shows that an area eight times the size of the United Kingdom has been leased or sold in the last decade. This land is enough to grow food for a billion people, the number of people who are hungry today, according to Oxfam.

Proponents of land grabs claim that these land deals are a “responsible agricultural investment”—good for both farmers and investors. These advocates say land deals provide investors with profits, create jobs, contribute to rural development for farmers and help feed a growing world population. In reality, land grabs achieve profitability at the expense of the well-being of millions of rural people, displace individuals – often without any notice – and diminish their access to land, food, and jobs, resulting in the devastation of communities. 

Why does land grabbing occur?

Land grabbing is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, communities have been forced or coerced to leave their land. But in the past 30 years, land grabs have accelerated at a dangerously fast pace driven by skyrocketing food prices, a growing world population, demand for biofuels and the distrust in traditional investments. Between 2000 and 2010, 203 million hectares of land was leased or sold in developing countries, mainly in Africa, reported the International Land Coalition. Foreign investors, from the US, China, the UK, and other countries, have been scouting out cheap arable land in developing countries for years, but land grabs have become much more popular since the global food crisis in 2008.

The global food crisis of 2008 caused a shift in national food security strategies around the world. Countries were fearful that they would be unable to feed their growing populations and began to acquire land for agricultural production in countries that continue to suffer from famine, armed conflict, and droughts. Most reports allege that the Middle Eastern Emirate States such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Kuwait, have led the land rush along with China, India, Korea and Libya. But many reports show that other countries, including members of the EU, including Germany, Italy, France and the UK are also involved.

Due to the recent financial crisis, countries and corporations no longer view traditional investments (stocks and bonds) as reliable. They find that land is cheap, finite and increasingly more in demand. Here is a list of notable millionaires and billionaires partaking in land grabbing for personal profit. 

Land grabbing around the world

While the world has focused on land grabbing in developing countries in the global South, land grabbing takes place around the world, including the U.S. and Australia. In the U.S., there is a new class of “gentlemen farmers” who are “buying wheat fields in Kansas and acres of soybeans in Indiana for profit,” according to the Global Policy Forum. In Iowa, this trend is becoming increasingly commonplace: 25 percent of buyers are investors, it reported.

Though land grabbing does occur in wealthier countries the majority of land deals still occur in impoverished nations. In seven countries, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Laos, Liberia, the Philippines and Sierra Leone – all countries with high hunger scores – land deals account for more than 10 percent of total agricultural area, according to the Global Hunger Index (GHI), jointly released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the NGOs Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe. Often governments in developing countries are complicit in land grabs and even welcome investment in land at low costs. Lulled by the promise of direct investment and often looking to make a profit, government officials sell or lease lands traditionally owned by local communities to foreign investors.

For example, in Liberia, 30 percent of the country has been swallowed up by land deals in only five years, Oxfam reported. In Sierra Leone, 20 percent of the agricultural land has been acquired by foreign enterprises to grow palm oil, sugarcane, and food crops such as rice mostly for export, said the GHI. In South Sudan, as much as 9 percent of the land is said to be owned by foreign firms, including those representing American university endowments. That land, in the world’s newest country, is going for as little as 2.5 cents per hectare, Oxfam has reported.

Devastating Effects

Companies deny claims that small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples are forcibly moved from their villages, but studies have found otherwise. A 2008 joint-report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and International Institute for Environment and Development found that in the Kisarawe district of Tanzania, a British firm acquired 9,000 hectares of land and “cleared 11 villages, which, according to the 2002 population census, were home to 11,277 people,” first reported by the Global Policy Forum in 2011. In Uganda, the government keen to attract foreign investment, has allowed foreign companies to move onto large areas of land, leaving people without access to land and other natural resources, found a study by global environmental and developmental policy organization Friends of the Earth. 

Furthermore, Friends of the Earth has found that “although rural communities’ customary land rights are recognized under the Ugandan constitution, in practice, these rights are being violated.” Communities have been displaced, losing vital access to natural resources, including land for farming, firewood and water supplies. Additionally, culturally important sites have been destroyed and local traditions and customs are being lost as the local population migrates and diversifies. Forests have been cleared to make way for the palm oil plantations and reduction in local food supply has meant more food has to be imported (Uganda is not an island), which has led to increased food prices and a greater risk of food insecurity.

Welthungerhilfe, a German non-governmental organization (NGO) found that land covering 24 villages in Sierra Leone, was leased to a Luxemburg company to grow oil and rubber for export, as also reported in the GHI. The local population received a “one-time payment of $220 for every acre lost and were promised education and job opportunities.” The plantation established by the Luxemburg company didn’t need many laborers and there was no official requirement to hire people from the area. Those hired worked only on a day-to-day basis. 

Recent Advancements

In May 2012, the United Nations officially adopted the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. The new UN guidelines are aimed at promoting food security and sustainable development by improving secure access to land, fisheries and forests and protecting the rights of millions of often very poor people who subsist on farming and fishing. This agreement marks the first time that governments around the world have agreed on land tenure guidelines. It is important to note, however, that the guidelines are not binding, and will not be more than mere rhetoric, unless implemented.

Over 870 million people suffer from hunger, according to development NGOs, and millions more have been pushed into poverty by rising food prices. Land grabs provide no solution to this crisis, and instead exacerbate poverty and hunger. These deals displace small farmers – often through violence – and force them to look for employment in large cities, which contributes to both rural and urban poverty.

Land grabs replace traditional and sustainable small scale farming methods with industrial agriculture based on the heavy use of pesticides, fertilizers and water – an unsustainable system that scientists have shown will not feed a growing world population. Furthermore, a report by FIAN International (Fighting Hunger with Human Rights) has found that land grabbing directly interferes with the right to feed oneself, as persons do not have access to their land to grow food, or the resources and labor to purchase food. Dependent on the market and volatile food prices, it has reported that this lack of access makes host communities most vulnerable.

In addition, the lack of local food reduces the quality and variety of local diets, which forces communities to alter their food customs – another violation of the right to food under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If left unchallenged, the consequences of land grabbing will continue to devastate all nations, especially developing countries, who will no longer be able to allow small-scale, subsistence farming, keep their citizens adequately nourished and keep the small, independent business sustainable.

Sarika Mathur works for the Global Justice office at United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 12/6/2012 11:00:00 PM