Across the globe countries are feeling the strain of a changing, globalized world. Population growth, global warming, water shortages, and a depletion of natural resources have prompted a sharp rise in international land purchases, with buyers looking to safeguard their own future food and energy security, and sellers are searching for prosperity during difficult times. In once self-reliant cities and villages, government agencies are selling off acreage to industrial agribusiness moguls who swoop in, seize land, and grow crops destined for consumption across the sea. In The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth, renowned science writer Fred Pearce unearths the truth about who is buying up all the land, who is profiting from the sale, and what is to become of the native dwellers in these so-called uninhabited areas.
As Pearce discusses, the act of land grabbing is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years the practice has grown exponentially. Though there is no central register, it is estimated that as many as 560 million acres of land have been “grabbed” worldwide. “Soaring grain prices and fears about future food supplies are triggering a global land grab,” writes Pearce. “Gulf sheiks, Chinese state corporations, Wall Street speculators, Russian oligarchs, Indian microchip billionaires, doomsday fatalists, Midwestern missionaries, and City of London hedge fund slickers are scouring the globe for cheap land to feed their people, their bottom lines, or their consciences.” Questioning why so many leaders are selling off their own lands, despite risks to their people, Pearce concludes, “some want to save their nations from a coming ‘perfect storm’ of rising population, changing diets, and climate change. Others look forward to making a killing as the storm hits.”
While researching the book, Pearce spent a year circling the globe, interviewing the various players including foreign investors, local government officials, displaced farmers, environmental experts, and Western industrialists. What he discovered time and time again was that there were a few key motivators are behind nearly all of the land grabbing operations, including:
• Water – Availability and access to water is one of the major constraints for industrial agriculture, and many in-demand crops, such as sugar, require a substantial amount in order to grow. Countries without water are looking to obtain it, and countries with water are looking to profit from it. Egypt is securing food supplies by accessing well-irrigated land in neighboring countries, like South Sudan, and attempting to modify irrigation routes from the wetlands in order to supply themselves with additional water. In Mali, on the fringes of the Sahara, the government aims to bring prosperity to the country by allowing foreigners to lease land, but the cost of irrigating the new farm land runs the risk of drying out the already fragile wetlands and destroying the local communities currently surviving off the land.
• Biofuels – The need for fuel is increasing alongside a push to find greener energy sources. As a result, various crops, including corn, soy, sugar, and palm oil, are all being cultivated by industrialized countries on foreign soil for use in the biofuel industry. But even with the vast amounts of money being invested, in places like Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Ukraine, biofuel deals have fallen apart and left destruction behind. “This is one of the problems when the corporate and financial worlds move in on the peasant world,” writes Pearce. “If things go wrong, they can move on and make their profits elsewhere.”
• Food fears – Beginning in 2007, low yields and rising prices instilled fears of long-term food shortages internationally, driving countries to hoard crops, further affecting the availability and cost of imported goods. With the additional stress of many crops being earmarked for use as biofuels, the global community has seen an 80% rise in the cost of the world’s food prices over the last five years. When corporations such as Goldman Sachs started investing in food futures and agricultural commodity funds, prices were forced up even further. The result has been countries like South Korea, which currently imports 90% of its wheat and corn, establishing a National Food Strategy to subsidize local corporations willing to annex foreign land to secure essential provisions. Meanwhile, some of the wealthiest countries, like Saudi Arabia, are buying up huge swaths of land in Africa for food production intended to provide Saudi food security in the future.
• The green grab – From Patagonia to South Africa, the privatization of nature has individuals like Richard Branson and Ted Turner, as well as corporations like De Beers and Benetton, buying up wildlife rich lands in the name of preservation, while simultaneously exploiting the landscape for their own financial gain, and expelling the native dwellers from their traditional homes and livelihoods.
The Land Grabbers also explores two inadvertent but widely recognized consequences of land grabbing: displacement of native peoples, and environmental devastation. In countless nations including South Sudan, Brazil, and Paraguay, once unreachable lands are now earmarked for agribusiness, forcing native inhabitants out of their homes, and away from the common lands where they have worked and lived for generations. Even in places that claim to offer land protection for local communities, such as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, Pearce discovers that international land grabbing usually prevails as local governments make special deals with private businesses. The other outcome from nearly all land deals is environmental ruin. In addition to damage to overburdened soil and water sources, clearing lands for farming bulldozes areas previously rich in biodiversity. “At a time when we fear climate change,” Pearce writes, “it seems especially crazy to be losing species that are obviously incredibly well adapted to extreme climate.”
After speaking to countless experts, and seeing the results firsthand, Pearce concludes that what is best for the world’s people and their survival is to step away from land grabbing and reinvest in small farms, urban agriculture, and a new generation of local farmers willing to till the soil. “There is little evidence that the large-scale farming model is either necessary of even particularly promising,” Pearce writes, explaining that empowering small farmers will likely have better results than turning over all the land to commercial agriculture, and it will fight the ongoing displacement of native peoples from their lands. Pearce ends on an uplifting note, writing that though concerns over climate change, food and water shortages, and population growth are real, their outcomes are not yet certain, and there is time to adapt to the changing world in a way that benefits both the planet and its people.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Fred Pearce has reported on the environment and development from 65 countries over the past 20 years. A former news editor at New Scientist, Pearce is currently its environment and development consultant; he has also written for Audubon, Popular Science, Time, Foreign Policy, the Boston Globe, National Geographic, and Natural History. He writes regularly online for Yale 360 and The Guardian. His recent books include When the Rivers Run Dry, With Speed and Violence, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, and The Coming Population Crash. He lives in London, England.
The Land Grabbers
May 29, 2012