On the one hand, “food insecure” governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore food production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, see investment in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue. As a result, fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated. If left unchecked, this global land grab could spell the end of small-scale farming, and rural livelihoods, in numerous places around the world.
Land grabbing has been going on for centuries. One has only to think of Columbus “discovering” America and the brutal expulsion of indigenous communities that this unleashed, or white colonialists taking over territories occupied by the Maori in New Zealand and by the Zulu in South Africa. It is a violent process very much alive today, from China to Peru. Hardly a day goes by without reports in the press about struggles over land, as mining companies such as Barrick Gold invade the highlands of South America or food corporations such as Dole or San Miguel swindle farmers out of their land entitlements in the Philippines. In many countries, private investors are buying up huge areas to be run as natural parks or conservation areas. And wherever you look, the new biofuels industry, promoted as an answer to climate change, seems to rely on throwing people off their land.
Something more peculiar is going on now, though. The two big global crises that have erupted over the last 15 months —the world food crisis and the broader financial crisis that the food crisis has been part of — are together spawning a new and disturbing trend towards buying up land for outsourced food production. There are two parallel agendas driving two kinds of land grabbers. But while their starting points may differ, the tracks eventually converge.
The first track is food security. A number of countries which rely on food imports and are worried about tightening markets, while they do have cash to throw around, are seeking to outsource their domestic food production by gaining control of farms in other countries. They see this as an innovative long-term strategy to feed their people at a good price and with far greater security than hitherto. Saudi Arabia, Japan, China, India, Korea, Libya and Egypt all fall into this basket. Highlevel officials from many of these nations have been on the road since March 2008 in a diplomatic treasure hunt for fertile farmland in places like Uganda, Brazil, Cambodia, Sudan and Pakistan. Given the continuing Darfur crisis, where the World Food Programme is trying to feed 5.6 million refugees, it might seem crazy that foreign governments are buying up farmland in Sudan to produce and export food for their own citizens. Ditto in Cambodia, where 100,000 families, or half a million people, currently lack food.