I have spent the past two years investigating the global epidemic of land grabs for a book. Saudi sheikhs, private equity whizz-kids, Indian entrepreneurs and Chinese billionaires all believe, with financier George Soros, that "farmland is going to be one of the best investments of our time."
They are satisfying their new-found land lust from Mali to Mozambique, Cambodia to Kazakhstan, and Paraguay to Papua New Guinea, usually seeking out unfenced “customary” land to grow grains, sugar, vegetable oils and biofuel for sale on the world’s booming commodity markets.
It is a rerun of the enclosure of common lands in Europe centuries ago – but taking place at breakneck speed and with the fences being erected mostly by foreign investors. At the heart of it is an arc of land through the grasslands of Africa, a region the size of western Europe that geographers call the Guinea Savannah Zone and the World Bank has dubbed “the world’s last large reserve of underused land”.
This unprecedented corporate privatisation and enclosure of the world’s common lands – its pastures, fields and forests – is being done in the name of development. But much of it will destroy development and impoverish the poorest. Peasants are being replaced with tractors.
Earlier this month, the UN committee on world food security agreed voluntary guidelines on “responsible” land grabbing. But I hold out no hopes for their success. As one British venture capitalist, with a 100,000-hectare stake in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, candidly admitted at an investor conference last year: “Industrial-scale farming displaces and alienates people, creates few jobs and causes social disruption.”
The trouble is that most of the grabbers care little for people like Omot Ochan, who I met in a forest clearing in Gambella, the poorest corner of Ethiopia. “All round here is ours. For two days’ walk,” Omot said. “When my father died he said don’t leave the land. We made a promise. We can’t give it to the foreigners.”
But Gambella is being taken over by Saudi and Indian land grabbers, and Omot is being forced out. “We used to sell honey,” he told me. “But two years ago, the big farm began chopping down our forest, and the bees went away. We used to hunt, but after the farm came the wild animals disappeared. Now we only have fish.”
Behind us, trucks owned by Mohammad Al Amoudi, Saudi Arabia’s second richest man and a buddy of the Ethiopian prime minister, were digging a canal that would drain the nearby wetland. So the fish would soon be gone too.
I met Malian herders whose cattle pastures are being fenced in for Chinese farms; Paraguayan tribes ejected from their land by Brazilian ranchers; Liberian peasant farmers giving ground to Malaysian palm-oil princes; and Cambodia rice farmers shunted aside by their own senators, who are shipping sugar to Tate & Lyle.
In Kenya, angry locals told me how they had lost the rich resources of the Yala swamp, on the shores of Lake Victoria, to an evangelical American who made his fortune managing privatised prisons.
I discovered that the government of newly-independent South Sudan handed out a tenth of its land to foreigners before even raising the flag for the first time last year. Not far from the capital, Juba, a British investment banker, Leonard Thatcher, claims control of more than half a million hectares, in a deal done with an aged chief whose people have denounced the deal.
Post-imperial governments across the world spent half a century putting communally owned land in state hands. The land was being held in trust for the people, they said. Now those governments are claiming the land is “empty” and “unused” - and flogging it off to foreigners who promise investment. After decades of under-investment in African agriculture, governments seem willing to accept any kind of investment.
Some say this is necessary to feed the world? I don’t believe so. I agree with the World Bank report that noted in 2009 that “there is little evidence that the large-scale farming model is either necessary or even particularly promising for Africa.” What sense does it make to grab the land of the poorest and hungriest, in the name of feeding the planet?
We need to invest in peasant farmers, not dispossess them.
But ultimately this is about rights. I agree with the Ford Foundation’s Pablo Farias, who recently called for the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit to “endorse community land rights”, noting that “when land rights of rural communities are recognised, far more sustainable land uses evolve.” Sadly the summit agenda is as devoid of recognition of those rights as its predecessor in Rio 20 years ago.
Fred Pearce’s book, The Landgrabbers, was published by Eden Project Books on 24 May. Fred Pearce spoke at the Festival of
Transition, and writes for New Scientist magazine.