Land Grabbing and Resistance: A Fight for Territory, A Fight for Democracy

In both the Global North and South the nature of the rural question itself appears concerned less with agriculture or even livelihoods but more about the specific function of rural space and the type of development that should take place in it, writes Dr Alana Mann.

In March this year the crackdown on Coal Seam Gas protestors and the labelling of those who want to protect their land as ‘ eco-fascists’ by NSW Energy Minister Anthony Roberts enraged farmer-activists and their allies across Australia.

Globally, land has become an increasingly attractive asset for nations and corporations in the race to produce food and extract resources.

The UN’s High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition reports that the practice of ‘land grabbing’ is damaging to the food security, income, livelihood and environment of those most vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.

‘Land investment’ is the preferred term of mainstream international development agencies and governments attempting to reframe the practice as a solution to rural poverty.

How protests against land grabbing are organised and operationalised – and the response from the state – signals a ‘new politics of the rural’ in Australia.

In Brazil, the criminalisation of protestors and human rights defenders is familiar and the stakes are somewhat higher. Between 1985 and 2006 nearly 1,500 land reform activists and peasant farmers, including children, were killed in rural conflicts. Only 8 per cent of cases were ever brought to trial.

The latest victims include two rural workers murdered in the state of Quedas do Iguaçu in the state of Paraná in southern Brazil this April.

Vilmar Bordim and Leomar Bhorbak, members of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), were living with their wives, children and 1,500 other families in an encampment on the Rio Dos Cobras estate on lands allocated, by law, to agrarian reform.

Security guards of the Araupel logging company, previously exposed for falsifying land titles, ambushed the men, who were shot while retreating.

This follows the March assassination of human rights defender and environmental activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras. Cáceres was gunned down in her home despite being given ‘special protection’ by local authorities after receiving death threats for leading protests against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric scheme.

Unfortunately these names will join those of hundreds killed in resistance against corporate land and resource grabbing in this century alone.

Visiting MST in the Pontal do Paranapanema region in São Paulo State in February this year I witnessed their struggle first hand.

Surrounded by a ‘green desert’ of sugar cane landless families waiting to be settled on a parcel of land shelter in roadside encampments, described as ‘rural favelas’ by an unsympathetic press.

In a country of unrivalled inequality, those who live in the countryside are the most affected. One per cent of landowners control 45 per cent of farmland, a legacy of the large land grants or sesmarias to privileged Portuguese families and the institutions of slavery in the colonial era.

As an instrument to redistribute wealth, land reform is not a popular concept in contemporary democracies. Yet, ironically, MST made progress through religious networks, rural trade unions and civil society activism.

In the mid-1990s MST started targeting large global corporations to protest their growing influence in the countryside. Recognising a new set of obstacles to land reform, particularly the green deserts of monoculture.

Media framing of MST as ‘fundamentalists’, ‘terrorists’ and a ‘dangerous menace’ is a response to the growing role of the movement as a leading critic of neoliberal policies and its role as a voice for the rural and urban marginalised.

As in the case of the Lock the Gate Alliance here in Australia, social movements employ forms of public activism that are disruptive in an effort to influence elites through shows of commitment and force of numbers, with the additional goal of building support.

The demonisation of protest by governments and the media demonstrates just how successful such actions can be and to what lengths elites will go to in suppressing them.

Dr Alana Mann is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and key researcher of the Food, People and the Planet node. She is leading a research project examining the social-cultural dimensions of food security in the Sydney City LGA where eight of the ten most densely populated and culturally diverse neighbourhoods in Australia are located. She sits on the executive committee of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and is a member of the Right to Food Coalition.

Dr Mann shares this blog post ahead of the Agricultural land grabs: What are their impacts Australian and globally? event on Mon 23 May.

Image: Supplied via Dr Alana Mann