The Global Land Grab

The Global Land Grab

Carlos Martinez’s family found his body lying in several inches of water in a far corner of the La Lempira palm oil cooperative in northern Honduras.

Several bullet holes betrayed the violence of the 23-year-old farmworker’s death Oct. 2, 2011. Mr. Martinez was murdered, his family said, because he dared to stand up to those who want to steal vast amounts of farmland from the poor who toil every day to make it produce.

Mr. Martinez was part of a cooperative of several dozen families that seized valuable land from a wealthy landowner they claim stole it from them.

When they and dozens of other peasant groups throughout the fertile Aguan Valley took control of the farmland, the Honduran government — product of a coup in 2009 — sent in the army. Working closely with private militias belonging to wealthy landowners, the army quickly turned the area into a militarized zone. Dozens of peasant leaders have been killed and hundreds of families violently thrown off their land. 

“Here in Honduras, to be poor is a crime,” Raul Ramirez, leader of the cooperative to which Mr. Martinez belonged, told response. “If I’m poor, then according to the government I’m automatically a delinquent. It has become a sin to be poor.”

Consuelo Castillo, another leader of the La Lempira cooperative, agreed. 

“The poor have always worked this land, but people came from other countries to take it over, thinking they are the owners of this country,” Ms. Castillo said. “That’s why there’s extreme poverty here. That’s why there are families here whose children sleep in the dirt at night, whose kids only eat once a day. That’s why we have risen up to defend this land, which really belongs to us. That’s the only way our children can have a different future. Although the troops of the landowners can come to threaten and kidnap and murder us, we’ll go on dreaming our simple dream of dignity. As people created by God, we deserve respect for our lives and respect for our rights.”

Mock land reform

Population growth, the increasing consumption of a global elite and an international legal system skewed in favor of large investors are all contributing to a rapidly increasing worldwide rush for land that threatens to leave the poor without land, water and food. The poor, however, are fighting back in Honduras and many lands.

In the Aguan Valley, banana plantations of the infamous United Fruit Company once stretched to the horizon, but the company returned the lands to the government in 1935 after plant disease crippled production. Cattle ranchers then illegally took over and fenced most of the land, staying until they were bought out by the government in the 1970s to make room for a massive colonization project. The government brought tens of thousands of landless peasants to the valley as part of an agrarian reform project designed to undercut sympathy for leftist reform movements.

It wasn’t genuine land reform, however, but rather an agricultural colonization program. The peasants — brought from all over the country — were grouped together in some 80 cooperatives, which were told what they had to plant. It was usually African palm, and the co-ops were required to sell their harvest to local subsidiaries of U.S. companies.

The government’s commitment to the colonization plan eventually waned, and the technical assistance and credit needed by the peasant cooperatives was even less forthcoming. While a few co-ops were relatively successful, many struggled along, plagued by mismanagement and government corruption.

Most co-ops were also bound to the monoculture of an export crop whose prices fluctuated and where producers earned relatively little compared to those who processed, transported and sold the final product.

With an end to revolutionary movements in the region in the early 1990s, the timid agrarian reform was no longer needed, and in 1992 the Honduran Congress passed a law to “modernize” agriculture, prioritizing export crops that would produce hard currency to pay the country’s mounting foreign debt, which U.S.-backed military governments had run up in prior years. The law encouraged several of the co-ops to sell their lands to foreign corporations or local elites, such as Miguel Facusse, the country’s wealthiest man, who often encouraged co-ops to run up huge debts that then became unpayable. The only solution was to sell out.

As a result, many peasants were left landless and penniless as before, and emigration from the region to the United States accelerated.

While the reasons for the disintegration and sale of the Aguan cooperatives were many, the lack of women’s participation in co-op decision making was one critical factor.

“If the peasant women had enjoyed a say in the matter, they wouldn’t have sold the land,” said Peter Marchetti, a former U.S. priest who worked in the valley until death threats drove him out. “When the men in this area sold their land, the women were against it, but their vote didn’t count back then.”

In the past decade, the valley has been plagued by increasing poverty and rising militancy among peasant groups. At the same time it has become a key transshipment point for cocaine headed north, some of it on small planes using airstrips on Mr. Facusse’s land.

In 2009 President Mel Zelaya began negotiations between wealthy landowners and militant peasant groups, offering government assistance to refinance the repurchase of some of the farmland by peasant groups. Many of the poor in the Aguan began to feel hope that something could be worked out.

Yet it also represented an overreach by Mr. Zelaya; within days he was overthrown in a military coup. In response, peasant groups, including the La Lempira cooperative, began to seize plantations. Soon Mr. Martinez was dead. 

“There’s no justice now”

Just a few miles from the Aguan Valley is the Caribbean coast of Honduras. For decades, many of the most beautiful coastal beaches have been home to the Garifuna people, descendants of African slaves and Caribbean natives who were kicked out of British colonies in the Caribbean and landed in Honduras in 1797.

Until now. As part of the new global land grab, European and North American companies are taking huge stretches of coastline, displacing traditional Garifuna communities from their ancestral lands in order to build massive tourism projects.

One of the biggest backers of the Garifuna land grab is Randy Jorgensen, the Canadian “Porn King” who made his fortune from a chain of adult bookstores. Yet the most ambitious project involves proposed “charter cities” near the town of Trujillo, where the post-coup Honduran government will cede sovereignty to huge enclaves controlled entirely by foreigners, including a group of wealthy U.S. libertarians who dream of living in a land with no government.

Bertha Arzu, director of the Network of Black Women in Honduras, a longtime partner of United Methodist Women, is among those Garifuna leaders who have banded together to fight the takeover. But she’s not hopeful.

“We’ve lost a lot of land. Our people have been displaced. There’s no justice now. There’s total impunity,” she told response.

“The little bit of progress we’ve made over the years has been turned back by the coup, and every day we’re poorer and more insecure. As we have lost our culture, people have emigrated. Our sense of solidarity, even within the family, has deteriorated. Our whole way of life has been lost to this collusion of national and international empires,” Ms. Arzu said.

Food is the new oil

Foreign takeovers of critically important farmland are increasing rapidly. According to a World Bank report, global investors acquired almost 140 million acres of farmland in 2010, up from 111 million acres in 2009 and considerably higher than the average of only 10 million acres in previous years.

Leading the takeover are wealthy but food insecure countries like China and India, where withering temperatures produced by climate change and dropping water tables have kept national producers from meeting the demands of a growing middle class.

However, companies from the United Kingdom, the United States and South Korea aren’t being left out of the modern day land rush in countries like Ethiopia, Mali and Cambodia.

These land grabs are often pitched by their promoters — including the World Bank — as investments that will provide local jobs and lower-priced food by putting into production “marginal” or unproductive land. Such allegedly “unused” land often turns out to be used by local people with weak land rights who have been farming there for generations but with no legal title to the land.

“Despite claims to the contrary, investors target the best lands,” states a recent report from Oxfam, an international confederation working on poverty and peace. “They seek land with access to water resources, fertile soil, infrastructure and proximity to markets to facilitate
the profitability and viability of their ventures. The large-scale projects tend to be located where most people live. Further analysis shows that these are also the places where poverty rates are relatively lower and where land was already in use for food production — rather than it being empty, unused, marginal land in poor regions.”

Rather than decreasing local food insecurity as promised, many of the projects produce biofuels or cut flowers and food crops that are harvested and shipped back home. Food has become the new oil, and its exploitation is a throwback to colonial practices when foreigners and a small number of corrupt local elites controlled impoverished countries’ natural resources.

The claim of job creation also turns out to be a myth. Surveys of agro-investment in Africa show few local jobs have been generated by land grabbing.

On the contrary, pastoralists and women — who rely on the land, trees and water in common areas for economic activity — were suffering most from loss of income after losing access to land seized by foreigners.

Corrupt governments often collaborate with foreign companies in driving people off land. “Dan Rather Reports” revealed last year that an Iowa-based company, AgriSol Energy, plans to grow corn and soybeans on hundreds of thousands of acres in Tanzania.

Yet the land is already occupied by more than 130,000 people, mostly Burundian refugees who have farmed the land for decades. That’s not a problem, as the Tanzanian government promises it will evict the refugees to make way for AgriSol, which is going to pay just 25 cents per year per acre.

Water rights and wrongs

Water is an important part of the land grab. Middle Eastern states are some of the biggest land investors in Africa, motivated by their own declining water tables. Saudi Arabia has cut back on domestic grain production to preserve its remaining water, preferring to grow wheat and rice in Sudan, where there is still water available.

This trend will accelerate as grain production continues to decline in places like Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In India, farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, but water tables are falling; 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, moving water from the water-rich south to northern China is likely to cost more than leasing land in Africa and shipping the grain home.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, a former chief executive officer of Nestlé, has said the land rush is actually a “great water grab.” He wrote in Foreign Policy, “With the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries essentially a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal.”

Thirst will inevitably translate into violence. Water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate crops in Ethiopia or Sudan, for example, will adversely affect populations downstream in Egypt, upsetting the already delicate water politics of the Nile basin.

The global land grabs have often been met by resistance. In 2007 as global food prices started to rise, China signed an agreement with the Philippines to lease 2.5 million acres of land slated for food crops that would be shipped home. When Filipino farmers learned of the deal, they raised an uproar, forcing Manila to suspend the agreement.

In South Sudan, a 49- year lease of 6,000 square miles in Central Equatorial State to Texas-based Nile Trading and Development — a lease which ceded all mineral and water rights — was voided by President Salva Kiir after affected residents marched to Juba to explain how they were not consulted. In Madagascar, a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, sought rights to more than 3 million acres of land, but when word of the deal leaked it led to a political crisis that toppled the government and forced cancellation of the agreement.

Late last year, Argentina’s Congress passed by an overwhelming margin a bill to end land grabs in the South American country, already the world’s leading exporter of soy meal and soy oil. The bill limits individual foreign ownership of rural land to 2,500 acres per titleholder and bars any more purchases by foreigners once 15 percent of Argentina’s land is foreign owned. Buyers from China, the United States and Saudi Arabia rushed to purchase land in anticipation of the vote.

“We’re not going to give up”

As resistance grows to this global land grab, religious groups are lining up on one side or the other. The church has traditionally provided ideological justification to colonial projects, but in several places around the world it is today standing on the side of the poor who are fighting to defend their land.

In the Aguan Valley of Honduras, where Carlos Martinez was murdered last year, for decades the church has stood by the poor as they struggled to defend their lives against rapacious foreign corporations and brutal domestic elites.

“When the soldiers come to our valley, they first attack anyone wearing rubber boots. That’s us, the peasants,” said co-op leader Raul Ramirez. “But the church has taught us that we have rights and that through struggle we can advance. So we’re not going to be quiet. We aren’t going to give up, even if they keep on killing us.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and response senior correspondent.

Posted or updated: 4/30/2012 11:00:00 PM
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