By Justin Dewaele
Increased pressure has recently been placed on governments and multinational corporations to halt their inhumane and environmentally destructive practice of “land grabbing.” Land grabbing generally refers to a process in which governments sell or lease land that is considered undeveloped to transnational corporations for their own agricultural purposes, often dislocating or dispossessing small-scale farmers, peasants as well as forest and indigenous communities that use and live on the land. Some organizations, like the World Bank, encourage this process albeit in a more ecologically sensitive way, and some organizations, like the peasant-rights group La Via Campesina, oppose land-grabbing schemes and view them as environmentally destructive and a violation of human rights. This article provides a brief overview of the effects of current land-grabbing schemes and proposes some solutions.
Land grabbing is nothing new. The process of wealthy firms and governments purchasing land to develop and use for their own purposes while forcefully removing current land tenants from their homes is a phenomenon that has shaped the world we live in today. However, due to rising food prices, the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the need for speculative capital to exploit new markets, land grabbing has occurred at an intensified pace in recent years. According to a recent report by the Rights and Resources Initiative, Oxfam and the International Land Coalition estimated that over 200 million hectares of land were bought or leased by agri-businesses from 2001-11 (RRI 18). To use a more specific figure, from 2006-11, 15-20 million hectares of farmland in developing countries was sold or leased — or under negotiation to be sold or leased — to foreign entities (Borras and Franco 37). Although the purposes of land grabbing vary and can be complicated, the majority of land grabs result in rural farmers, peasants, forest and indigenous communities being forced off of their land. When this occurs, that multinational agribusinesses can develop a monocultural plantation, either of a food or biofuel crop meant for international export. In some cases, paramilitary forces are utilized to violently coerce people to abandon their lands in order to make way for corporate agricultural development (Borras and Franco 42). One of the reasons this large-scale land seizure is allowed to occur is because governments have a simplified classification system for land use that ignores the land tenure of these marginalized groups (Borras and Franco 51). Many governments officially label land that is occupied and utilized by rural communities and landlords as ‘marginal,’ ‘underutilized,’ ‘empty’ or ‘available.’ Such inaccurate classifications conveniently justify the clearing of these communities and the leveling of the ecosystem to make way for industrial agricultural development.
A popular view of large-scale industrial agricultural development that legitimizes the process of land grabbing is that it is the most efficient way to produce food and that it will feed the greatest amount of people in a world that faces increasing population pressures. This is an unfortunate view, however, because it supports a system that overfeeds some parts of the world and starves other parts. There are about one billion people in the world today who have food insecurity, about half of which live off of subsistence agriculture (de Schutter 256). The reason subsistence agriculture is not a viable livelihood for so many people is because they have to compete with large-scale agricultural units for land and water resources. As a result, they are often forced into areas that are arid and that lack irrigation. The fruits of large-scale industrial agricultural plantations acquired through land grabbing do not flow to subsistence farmers and other rural agricultural communities in the developing world. This food is produced for the international market, transforming ‘resource-rich, finance-poor’ countries into food import-dependent countries vulnerable to shocks in world food prices (de Schutter 249). These people lose access to their land, livelihoods and vital resources so that people in more powerful countries can eat more.
In a recent report by Friends of the Earth International, the effects of land grabbing on rural communities in Uganda — a country where 80 percent of jobs are in the agricultural and fishing sectors — were detailed. It describes a project launched by the Ugandan government in 1998 and supported by the World Bank and the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development to clear thousands of hectares of land in order to produce various vegetable oils for the world market. Throughout the course of this project, rural communities that did not possess formal land titles were forced off their lands and small-scale landowners who could not afford the fertilizers necessary for the project were forced to sell and people were denied access to vital resources including grazing lands and water (FOEI 11-12). The report details the systematic effects of land grabbing in Uganda in recent years, including destruction of the local economy that was once based on farming and fishing, loss of biodiversity and food insecurity for communities that had traditional uses for the land. The report is a case study of a process that has occurred in over 60 countries (FOEI 7).
The most disturbing part of the phenomenon of land grabbing is that it makes good sense within the capitalist logic: Production must be expanded in order to meet consumer demand, and production must be as efficient as possible. What this logic ignores is that, in the case of food, expanded production means theft of land and risk of starvation for hundreds of millions of people. Further, it can lead to intense environmental degradation via the industrial agricultural techniques and the mono-cultural nature of these plantations. Also, the markets that these techniques satisfy are exclusively in rich countries or within the elite of developing countries, and the distribution is based on profit and not need. In order to ensure a future that achieves food justice for more people around the world, governments need to ensure the protection of rural agricultural and indigenous communities’ uses and occupation of land. Communal, as well as individual property rights need to be viewed by governments as legitimate forms of land possession. Additionally, if food security of all people is prioritized over profits for agribusinesses and land speculators, wealthy households and individuals in the rich world would need to accept less abundance of food and less exorbitant diets.
Borras, Saturnino M. and Jennifer C. Franco. “Global Land Grabbing and Trajectories of Agrarian Change: A Preliminary Analysis.” Journal of Agrarian Change 12.1 (January 2012): 34-59. Web. 30 April. 2012.
De Schutter, Oliver (2011), “How Not to Think Land Grabbing: Three Critiques of Large-Scale Investments in Farmland.” Journal of Peasant Studies 38:2, 249-79. Web. 5 May. 2012.
Friends of the Earth International (FOEI). “Land, life and justice: How land grabbing in Uganda is affecting the environment, livelihoods and food sovereignty of communities.” Friends of the Earth International, April 2012. PDF File.
“Turning Point: What future for forest peoples and resources in the emerging world order?” Rights and Resources Initiative. Rights and Resources Initiative. 2011-2012. Web. 30 April 2012.
Image Courtesy of Flickr user, Soumabrata Moulick