Land Grabs – a Game of Grains?

Miko Brown

Plowing family farmlands, Photo Credit: kbomer, Wiki Commons

Plowing family farmlands, Photo Source: kbomer via Wiki Commons

That water fountain in the library or aisle stocked with tens of brand named cereals is probably an aspect of your everyday life you take for granted – that they will just be there for your convenience and choice.

However, those seemingly ubiquitous items of water and food have the potential to become the source of conflict and struggle in the future. There is an increasing global demand for more supplies of water and food due to exponential world population growth, which you could consider as 219,00 new mouths for the globe to feed every single day. Of the members in the world’s growing population, 3 billion individuals are consuming greater quantities of meat, milk and eggs. In China, total meat consumption is almost double the intake of the United States.

While the demand side for crops is increasing, the supply side is becoming increasingly strained with lost topsoil and depleting water sources. In brief, fear of food shortages, with the rising price of food staples, creates the need to exploit lands that can sustain large food productions. These “opportunities”, as discovered by governments and multinationals, would allow for the production of greater quantities of rice, wheat, and soy.

Western MNCs and Asian and Middle Eastern governments have started to lease large areas of land throughout developing states. These investments ultimately create a large-scale export orientated agriculture industry with the goal of exporting the maximum amount of food as efficiently as possible. These lands, of which the nearly two-thirds are in Africa, are used as instruments to ensure the food security of foreign states and generate profits for MNCs as world food and commodity prices are expected to rise.

There is an idea that these described investments will have the potential to help African states create jobs, increase exports, and acquire more advanced technologies; however, this vision does not match with the on-the-ground reality.

For instance, the Malkerns community in Swaziland has farmed their lands for nearly 60 years in a tranquil valley. This small village has a mere 150 residents who keep goats and grow maize. Recently, this peace was uprooted by land grabs; community members were served an eviction notice to leave immediately and without any monetary compensation or prospects of a new home. A community that has built a tradition and lifestyle for over half a century is displaced for greed and profit.

The non-profit GRAIN estimates that 10 million hectares have been leased to foreign governments and corporations since 2007. In other words, 60 million hectares of land, which is about the size of the Ukraine, worldwide have been grabbed.

In addition to the growing need for more food staples to feed human mouths, the desire for biofuel, as a cheap and sustainable alternative to oil, is driving the intense land grabs. In this case, farmlands from Guinea or the Philippines will be leased in order to harvest crops, such as sugar cane or palm oil, that will be converted into biofuels. What are the implications of these land grabs for biofuels? 200,000 individuals are estimated to die each year from hunger and hunger-related diseases, because the change in land usage drastically reduces the amount of food available for human consumption. The land grabs hinder local populations from accessing their farmlands and harvesting crops to feed themselves and their community. Ironically, in a sinister way, three-quarters of the world’s hungry are living on farmlands.

The perpetrators of these land grabs, whether it is for the production of food staples or biofuels, are driven by an insatiable need for capital accumulation. The land grabs are inevitably carried-out at the expense of local populations and their small family farming lifestyles.

Currently, land grabs are chiefly organized to be sustainable and profitable for the receiving Asian and Middle Eastern governments and Western MNCs. However, agriculture has the potential to be a potent development tool for much of the developing world. Two critical steps of transparency and engagement much be achieved when dealing with land transactions in order to ameliorate their detrimental impact.

First, stronger transparency needs to occur. Too often land deals are conducted in closed rooms and the local families are handed swift eviction notices without any engagement in the land negotiation processes. It is essential for local populations to have a voice in the process of changing the structure of the environment that they have built their lives around.

Also, foreign governments and MNCs ought to make better efforts to interact and engage in open and meaningful dialogue with the local populations. If land is going to be leased it should be organized with minimal disturbance, which does not require relocation or lack of good food and water, to the local population. Additionally, those leasing the  land could commit to giving a percentage of profits to build local infrastructure or train local farmers to use new agriculture technologies.

Better communication to improve accountability and interaction needs to be facilitated. To start this dialogue grassroots activists and civil society are key to sparking the discussion on how the world’s land resources can be more equitably distributed and utilized for everyone.

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