December 19, 2011


If you have ever questioned what your power is in the face of a great tragedy, then know that in the case of land grabs, it is significant. A land grab occurs when a private firm or investor acquires large tracts of land from an economically unstable nation through a financial transaction. This benefits the host nation, while at the same time providing the purchaser with the rights and capacity to farm the land and secure its own food supply needs.

A settlement of nomadic herdsmen  near Ludhiana have become a source for cow dung based manure which was traditionally used as a fertilizer.
Photo by:Akshay Mahajan

The motivation behind land grabbing supports the idea that private investment into the agricultural sector of a farming community will elevate local economy toward eventual solvency. The land grab industry, worth less than $1 billion at the turn of the century, has increased in activity to nearly $320 billion within the last two years. Many involved believe that this number will continue to grow, and perhaps even double, within the near future. Rampant with human rights violations and deleterious effects on native ecology, the practice of land grabbing is fueled by weakened financial markets—expressly those linked with current food, energy, and climate crises not to mention the menacing water crisis. “Large-scale land acquisition,” as land grabbing is termed by the World Bank, is framed as an integral aspect of viable industrial and financial expansion in agrarian nations all over the developing world. However, not everyone involved in or monitoring the arrangements is pleased with the way proceedings have materialized in reality. Human rights groups, civil society, farmers, non- profit organizations, and the United Nations are crying foul at the catastrophic risk of turning our global food supply into a speculative market.

As a result of land grabs, tens of thousands of people have been displaced in Mozambique and Kenya. The populations of Mauritius and Tanzania face increasing famine, natives of the Andes can no longer afford to buy and eat the foods that have been sustaining them for centuries and land degradation is being observed at an alarming rate in every country where land has been occupied. Without regulation of the land acquisition industry, the future of food and the lives of billions of human beings will be treated as a wager on the floor of a online casino, or in this case on the flipping two-faced coin of Wall Street.

We are witness to, in real time, the same profit-driven behavior that has delivered the global economy to its most debilitating moments. The first decade of the new millennium is replete with cautionary tales. Think about the oil crisis, fast forward a few years and the still teetering global economy screeches to a halt. Yet another chicken and egg dynamic is exposed between the subprime mortgage bubble bursting and the credit crisis. Accountability must be sought, not necessarily from the few individuals or firms who tailored the financial meltdowns mentioned above, but more so for the opportunity dictated by the developed world’s lifestyle preferences. Our choices in the Global North are literally setting the stage for a tragedy in the world’s food chain.This is an old lesson, sure, but we might want to avoid eating our food with the same hand that touches money. It’s a dirty business.

Land acquisition occurs for many reasons, though it’s been difficult for the World Bank itself, as well as organizations such as FIAN (Fighting Hunger with Human Rights), to gain transparency as to how the land is being used. Initial research claims that some firms are obtaining land and not utilizing it for farming at all, rather they are holding it as a private investment. Some purchasers are planting their fields with commodity crops, oftentimes monocultures, even though these practices have been advised against and have a history of fueling famines and social injustices. There are also investors who are using the land for biofuel production and mining, both of which will deplete the land of mineral resources necessary for any future generations attempting to grow food. Some acquired land is indeed used for food production-to actually balance land use in the West, where almost 70 percent of fields are utilized for livestock and feed production. In the case of foreign nations and sovereign wealth that have invested in land grabs, findings show that occupying nations are more concerned with offshore food production in efforts to quell food shortages happening at home.

If you are wondering why these firms are outsourcing for land that bears agricultural capacity, consider your own patterns of daily consumption. What do you eat and where was it grown? How did you get to work, home, or dinner today? What are you wearing and where was it made? What kind of energy do you consume and how is it produced? Examine your habits and multiply that by the billions of people who mirror your decisions and then divide by the diminishing amount of space and resources available for energy, fuel, and food production on domestic soil. The outcome is this massive, profitable, and volatile land acquisition race.

Of course, land grabs were not initially intended to be corrupt or destructive practices. The goal of “large-scale land acquisiton” was to achieve a mutually beneficial agreement between nations and investors. Many of the occupied countries lack the technological and industrial efficacy to produce the amount of nourishment required to be anything more than subsistence farmers, or to become financially self-sufficient. The World Bank sought private investment as a means to stimulate local economies and fortify infrastructures so that historically unstable nations could become secure participants in their local as well as global economies.

For parties interested in large-scale land acquisition, the World Bank asks investors to adhere to seven tenets in order to protect the host country. Of these, the most controversial principle has been that occupying firms are asked to guarantee jobs for local inhabitants as well as to expand local economy through the development of roads, telecommunications, and overall infrastructure. While the idea of land acquisition waxes beneficial for all parties involved, we must bring color to the fact that a nation’s primary economy should not predicate upon foreign investment in a climate with very limited regulation.

In a recent report, the Bank claims that these initial intentions are not being met. “In some countries, deals with outside investors have lacked transparency. Many African countries and other places where landownership isn’t recorded or respected, the details on investments are treated as confidential, and information on land rights either isn’t kept at all or is stored in incompatible databases. Vulnerable groups and secondary landholders are often excluded from land deals. That makes it difficult for existing landowners to negotiate good terms or ensure that investors keep their promises. Some investors in Africa seem more interested in speculating on rising land prices than growing crops, and they aren’t fully cultivating the land they have acquired. For example, in Sudan, where many local farmers complained about losing land rights, not much of the land transferred has been cultivated.”

“The stakeholders or actors who are doing the grabbing are justifying it as economic and market opportunity for the host, or land ‘grabbee,’” states Thomas Forster, who has recently been commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to deliver a project on the future of food for cities.If the tensions between land grabbers and land grabbees are as unstable as initial research and reports deem them to be, then it is easy to understand how the local food procurement has become difficult. “Countries that are historically food insecure, whose populations are rising fast, who are paying attention to climate and economic volatility on a global level, are the likeliest to put their disposable income into investing in land. The two biggest actors are China and the sovereign wealth nations in the Middle East, also known as oil producing and therefore arid and very dependent upon global supply chains,” says Forster.

This explains why the biggest players in the land acquisition market are also the most vulnerable to climate deregulation and increasing population. On the one hand, we can see emerging and longstanding players in the global economy scrambling to secure their own food supply, and on the other, there are countries in Africa and South America that are so desperate to break patterns of economic depression that they will relinquish their own land capacity in attempt to catch a break. It’s shortsighted for everyone.

Many investors taking stock land grab opportunities do not possess any formal knowledge or training in agricultural pursuits. In some cases, once the land is acquired, it is evacuated, displacing peasant farmers and locals who have lived there for decades and dismissing the husbandry that is culturally instilled in these individuals. In the case of Ethiopia, a country that when not facing drought, has a water and land capacity sufficient to provide nourishment domestically as well as for export, the current land acquisition system has been detrimental to its internal development. Almost 85 percent of the Ethiopian workforce participates in the agricultural sector, however that number is rapidly diminishing Land grabbers are favoring a cheaper workforce; they import their own, less skilled, farmers who are not familiar with the native soil, thus reneging on initial promises to provide jobs and stimulate the local economy while simultaneously creating more negative externalities.

Over the last few decades, China has become the world’s factory for a plethora of consumer items. China’s cheap, efficient, and skilled labor force has been an instrumental aspect of what has developed the Chinese economy into a giant in the global market. However, the West’s long-standing reliance on China’s cost-effective industrial sector has proven both debilitating for the skill set of western labor forces and damaging to the Chinese farming sector. “China is pushing its rural population into industrial production in rural and, especially, urban areas,” states Forster. “There is deliberate policy to cut its farm population by a dramatic number that is actually bigger than the size of the U.S. population overall. They’ve been very active at these global intersections of climate and agriculture modeling and mapping, trend mapping that is. It’s like the older sense of hedging your bets, having more eggs in your basket. In some ways it is being a ruthlessly good planner.” It appears that Wall Street isn’t the only giant placing a bet on the future of food, but as populations grow and land resources diminish, we must force our hand to protect the food supply as a basic human right.

With almost 1 billion people going hungry every single day, we must ask ourselves how our global food chain is failing to feed so many. In some parts of the developing world, up to 50 percent of the food intended for nourishment goes to waste. Considering the global deficit, this amount of waste is clearly unprincipled. Ignoble patterns of consumption adopted in the Global North are irrifutabley and actively determining the hunger of one out of every six people on earth. The coupling of the financial speculation market with the food, energy, and climate crises that has led firms to partake in land grabs works on the politics of fear. The frenzy of grabbing land to protect against an impending food shortage is actually the vehicle for a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no such thing as East and West anymore; there is the developed world and the developing world. Because the developed world wants to live the way it is accustomed to living, it necessarily means that innocent people must die. The lives of those on the encroached lands must be filled with indignity, subjugation, starvation, and human rights violations so that we can continue to live in comfort. With awareness of the injustice and famine being imposed on millions of people all over the world, we now posses knowledge to become actors in this tragedy.

How can you prevent land grabs from becoming more volatile? Cut less corners. Spend a bit more money on the item that will last longer. Recycle everything. Eat more vegetables. Support individuals who are committed to sustainability. Ride a bike, train, bus, or walk. Avoid processed foods. And vote. Vote like someone’s life depends on it.

text by: Nicole Casanova

Don't yet have an account? now!

Order The Radiant Issue Today

Order The Radiant Issue Today

Order The Radiant Issue Today

Order The Radiant Issue Today