The term ‘global land grab’ has recently re-entered the lexicon to describe a surge in national and transnational commercial large-scale land deals. In recent years, various actors, from big agribusiness corporations, to financial investors such as banks and hedge funds, to state-owned enterprises and sovereign wealth funds, and more, have been targeting tracts of land around the world. In many cases, though not all, this is arrogantly declared as putting ‘idle land’ to better use through large-scale industrial, agro-industrial and extractive ventures benignly packaged as ‘investment for rural development’.
Yet, no amount of lofty packaging can hide the truth. Many of these land deals reflect a terrible degree of economic and political power wielded these days by national and transnational capital, where naked desire for profit is permitted to override any living meanings, uses and practices that may stand in the way. This is being accomplished through both illegal and ‘perfectly legal’ means, and as seen in cases from Romania and Colombia to Mali and Myanmar, very often despite resistance from those whose lives and livelihoods are or will be affected.
Moreover, the phenomenon is not limited to re-allocating rights to and the benefits of use of land alone, but also of forests, water and aquatic resources. Indeed, on the ground, natural resources are not fragmented, even though their formal ‘governance’ very often is split up amongst a variety of national institutions, such as different ministries administering laws and policies pertaining to forests, land or fisheries.
One common denominator in many of the new capitalist enclosures is a change in customary tenure and use systems, from small-scale uses like peasant farming, gathering, grazing and fishing for household consumption and local markets, towards large-scale, capital-intensive, resource-depleting activities such as industrial monocultures or extractive industries that commodify nature and homogenize ‘its’ use and management. As such, land grabbing involves the capturing of control of land and other associated natural resources like water, forests, fishing grounds and underground materials in order to control the benefits of use. In the process, the decision-making power over how land and other local resources will be used and for what purposes becomes more concentrated. This process directly threatens the future of peasant farming and forecloses pathways towards a more agro-ecological future.]
The multiple drivers of the global land grab
The main drivers of this wave of enclosures are embedded within shifting patterns in the food, energy, finance and climate sectors. Several key mechanisms are emerging:
First, food scarcity arguments have been mobilized following the food price crisis to argue that large-scale agriculture is the only way to meet the food needs of a growing human population.
Second, energy security discourses also fuel land grabs for non-renewable energy like mining or fracking, as well as for biofuel from energy crops. Key policies such as the American Clean Energy and Security Acts and the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive played an important role by enacting mandatory blends of agrofuels in petrol and diesel fuels.
Third, international rules and schemes that allow for increased speculation in food markets or in conservation of biodiversity are also contributing to the land rush, as are carbon sequestration and trading programs that are dubiously being justified in the name of climate change mitigation.
Behind these specific drivers lies the changing character of the global food regime. The international rules and relations that govern the production, distribution and consumption of food and related commodities are increasingly articulated around a capital-intensive, corporate-driven, and profit-led agro-industrial complex which combines food, feed, fuel, timber, minerals, etc. in new global commodity value chains.
This has direct consequences for land use. A main consequence is the booming of industrial monocultures of “flex” crops and trees. Flex crops are crops that have multiple uses that can be easily and flexibly inter-changed such as soya (feed, food, fuel), corn (food, feed, fuel), sugarcane (food, fuel) or oil palm (food, fuel, and industrial uses). Over the last five decades, the area covered by flex crops has skyrocketed: for example, in Latin America, soya went from 250,000 to 42 million ha, sugarcane from 2,000 to 10 million ha, and oil palm has multiplied by a factor of eleven.
Negatively impacting rural development
There is growing evidence from academic and activist research that suggests that the impacts of land grabbing on rural poor communities and ecosystems have so far been largely negative. In many cases, peasants, farmers, producers and rural workers see their control over their resources and their autonomy of production disappear in new economic arrangements structured in favor of national and transnational capital.
This disempowerment is not always achieved by expelling people from their land. It can also occur by being adversely incorporated into new arrangements such as wage labour or growers’ contracts for instance. Not all instances of incorporation turn out negatively. More frequently than not though, it does turn out badly, precisely because the critical conditions that could potentially enable local people to achieve a truly powerful presence at the negotiating table tend not to be present in areas targeted by investors.
Agricultural investment at a crossroads
Land and water grabbing is an expression of the dominant development model based on food and energy production and consumption patterns controlled by transnational corporations under a world trade and investment system where financial capital reigns. Dealing with those underlying, multi-faceted and unequal problems requires going beyond narrow perspectives in order to address the politico-economic structure in which such grabs are rooted.
Truly enforcing human rights and implementing human rights-based regulations and policies around land issues, such as the FAO’s Tenure Guidelines, is a necessary – but not sufficient – step to address the problem of land grabbing. As this suggests, contrary to most of today’s mainstream land governance initiatives, a fundamentally different starting point is needed: one in which land and natural resource issues are first and foremost treated not as a business matter, but as a matter of human rights.
As such, and especially in the context of climate change, addressing poverty and hunger involves not opposing agricultural investment, but reshaping it. At best, many of today’s large-scale corporate land investments are only investments in its narrowest sense. Recognizing small-scale food producers as the primary investors and prioritizing agro-ecology as the most climate smart kind of investment in agriculture, while prioritizing public support for these is key to our collective future.
Jennifer Franco is co-coordinator of the Agrarian Justice team of the Transnational Institute (TNI), Timothé Feodoroff is also part of the Agrarian Justice team of TNI while Sylvia Kay is a researcher at the TNI in the Netherlands.