Land Grabbing: The New Global Power-play

Alana Mann considers the effects of land grabbing on local small scale farming as wealthy food-importing nations are securing their future food supplies in poorer, resource-rich nations

Image by Roach Productions, Sourced: Flickr CC

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, claiming that ‘family and small-scale farming are inextricably linked to food security’. Yet the relentless acquisition of farm land in some of the world’s poorest nations, by some of the world’s richest, is doing little to support small-scale farming in developing nations. Here I’ll look at what land-grabbing is, how bad the problem has gotten and what steps are being taken to stop this crippling practice.

What is Land-Grabbing?

As Oxfam reports, the security of rural communities world-wide is undermined by ‘land-grabbing’ –large-scale land acquisition by foreign investors. Land ‘investments’ is the preferred term of mainstream international development agencies and governments attempting to reframe the practice as a solution to rural poverty.

In 2011 the UN’s High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition reported that the practice is damaging to the food security, income, livelihood and environment of those most vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition. In fewer than 25 per cent of cases has the practice resulted in tangible agricultural output.

How Bad is the Problem?

The scale of the problem is contested. The findings of the HLPE report indicate that in low- and middle-income countries 50–80 million hectares of land have been bought or leased, while the World Bank cites 120 million acres, the Global Land Project 150 million, the Land Deal Politics Initiative 200 million and Oxfam 560 million.

What is clear is that, prompted by the 2008 food crisis, wealthy food-importing nations such as China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and South Korea are securing their future food supplies in poorer, resource-rich nations. These controversial land acquisitions could be playing a role in contributing to conflicts in Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Australia is also playing its part in this controversial practice, with accusations that Australian banks are indirectly participating in exploitative land deals in the Cambodia, Malaysia and PNG.

World Bank analysis of land grabs reports that foreign investors acquired 111 million acres of farmland in 2009. Nearly 75 per cent of this land was in sub-Saharan Africa. Elsewhere Bahrain has secured agro-fishery reserves in the Philippines. Indian companies are buying palm oil plantation in Indonesia. China’s attempt to secure 2.5 million acres of land in the Philippines was thwarted by public outcry, and Madagascans sacked their government over the proposed sale of 3 million acres to Daewoo in South Korea. Deals with Cameroon and Tanzania for land for future rice production have gone ahead.

A lack of transparency characterises most deals, particularly where corrupt governments are involved. Local people without formal tenure are rarely consulted and do not give prior consent, sometimes resulting in violent evictions and human rights violations, as in Ethiopia, where 150,000 people have been relocated from eastern Somali to make way for Saudi and Indian interests.

The impacts of investment projects, such as displacement, food insecurity and water shortages, are rarely considered. In reality local people are unlikely to benefit from food production on land leased to foreign investors. World Bank analysis suggests only 37 per cent of foreign investment projects will be for food crops.

What’s Being Done?

On March 23 the UN Committee on World Food Security adopted draft guidelines against land grabbing to better protect rural communities. Though non-binding, these guidelines are the latest step in the long campaign to reassert the importance of local agriculture.

Local production by small-scale farmers is the most efficient way to ensure food security at the household level in the Global South. The international farmers’ movement La Via Campesina (‘the peasant way’) calls this food sovereignty.  Food sovereignty grants nations control over their food security policies, including the right to impose protective tariffs against the dumping of subsidised exports, and the support and promotion of local markets.

It also puts the onus on governments to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of citizens to food and the productive resources to produce it, including land.

The 150 grassroots organisations that make up La Via Campesina call on governments to stop the global-land grab that deprives rural communities of their livelihoods and threatens to spark civil war in countries already crippled by poverty and hunger.

Alana Mann is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and is involved in SEI’s Food, People and the Planet node. She is the author of ‘Global Activism in Food Politics’, which will be launched on June 5th 2014.