Treasure hunt for fertile land

2013-03-31 10:00

Entitled Land Hunger, this edited extract from Making Peace with the Earth by Vandana Shiva argues that investors are the new buccaneers and merchant adventurers, and that we are witnessing the recolonisation of Africa.

The World Bank estimates that by 2030 land conversion from food to industrial agriculture, especially biofuels, will be in the range of 18 to 44?million hectares.* Global biofuel consumption is estimated to jump from about 70?billion litres in 2008 to 280?billion litres in 2020.

The demand for land in the South to grow industrial biofuels could reach 17.5?million hectares. In just five nations – Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali and Sudan – 2.5?million hectares have been grabbed by investors, with 1.1?million for biofuels.

The land grab in Africa is driven by the convergence of fuel, food and the financial crisis. The global food crisis and the demand for biofuels has made land a strategic asset.

Financial services firm Morgan Stanley bought 40?000 hectares of farmland in Ukraine, and securities firm Goldman Sachs took over the Chinese poultry and meat industry in September 2008.

American asset manager BlackRock has set up a $200?million (R1.9?billion) agricultural hedge fund, of which $30?million is to acquire farmland.

Swedish investment groups, Black Earth Farming and Alpiot-Agro, have joined the British investment group, Landkom, to acquire 600?000 hectares in Russia and Ukraine.

An Abu Dhabi-based investment company has bought large tracts of farmland in Morocco and Algeria and is scouting for land in Pakistan, Syria, Vietnam, Thailand, Sudan and India.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has acquired 900?000 hectares in land-scarce Pakistan and 378?000 in Sudan.

While 5.6?million refugees are being fed by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Sudan, US investor Phillipe Heilberg (formerly with AIG and now chief executive of Jarch Capital), leased 400?000 hectares of land in Sudan, and in mid-April 2009, added another 800?000 hectares to create a gigantic agricultural plantation.

Heilberg is betting on the disintegration of the African state.

Investors are the new buccaneers and merchant adventurers.

What we are witnessing is a recolonisation of Africa.

Instead of erstwhile kings and queens of Europe, it is the kings of the financial world who are grabbing land in this new colonisation where the contemporary land grab is based on financial conquest, not armed conquest.

First, food was transformed into a globally traded commodity and now land is being similarly transformed.

Private equity funds, hedge funds and other actors in the financial world are snapping up land worldwide in what is being called the “treasurehunt” for fertile farmland.

A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development – titled Land Grab or Development Opportunity? – has assessed that two million hectares have been signed over to foreign investors in Africa, including a 10?000-hectare project in Mali and a 450?000-hectare plantation for agro-fuels in Madagascar.

In July 2009, Ethiopia allowed investors to take 1.6?million hectares of land, extendable to 2.7?million hectares, to develop commercial farms.

When I asked an Ethiopian taxi driver about the land grab in his nation, he said it was “wasteland”, that Ethiopians were “primitive” and did not know how to practise “civilised agriculture”, by which he meant industrial agriculture.

Land was declared “empty” and it had to be “improved”.

Since rights then and now were framed as “property rights”, grabbing the land and violating the ancestral claims of indigenous local communities was acceptable, as land was not “property” for them.

English philosopher John Locke argued for property as an extension of man’s self, but this implied that those for whom land was identity, not property, could be alienated from it by those with power and capital who could make it their property.

The relationship of natural resources, including land, with capital has overruled their relationship with communities. In a system dominated by capital and investments, the land rights of communities can be systematically violated.

This is why land grabs were easy in colonial times and are easy today.

Nations like China, which are destroying their farmland for rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, are also grabbing land.

In its report, Seized, international non-governmental organisation GRAIN states that Beijing has been gradually outsourcing part of its food production well before the global food crisis broke out in 2007.

Through China’s new geopolitical diplomacy and the government’s aggressive “go abroad” outward investment strategy, about 30 agricultural cooperation deals have been sealed in recent years to give Chinese firms access to “friendly country” farmland.

Most of China’s offshore farming is dedicated to the cultivation of rice, soya beans and maize, along with biofuel crops like sugarcane, cassava or sorghum.

The farming is industrial, the farmers and experts are Chinese.

There is no place for the indigenous and local, either in terms of farmers or farming systems.

With $1.8?trillion in foreign exchange reserves, China is a major global investor and there is nothing better than land to invest in.

The oil-rich Gulf states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – are also on a landhunt.

They are collectively outsourcing their food production and are looking for land in southeast Asia, some central Asian countries, Uganda and Brazil.

At the same time, the WFP has had to start shipping $35?million in food aid to feed hungry Cambodians.

In 2009, Saudi Arabia received its first shipment of rice produced on land it had acquired in Ethiopia, even as the WFP was feeding five million Ethiopians.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China acquired seven million hectares of land for palm oil, while millions of the nation’s citizens live on food aid.

While “food security” is the justification for land-grabbing, intensifying food insecurity is its inevitable consequence.

Foreign direct investment in land was $1?billion during the 1989/91 season and in 2005/07, $3?billion.

As GRAIN reports, not all investment is development.

“Invest in agriculture” has become the rallying cry of virtually all authorities and experts charged with solving the global food crisis, into which perhaps the uninvited land-grab boom fits well.

It should be abundantly clear that behind the rhetoric of win-win deals, the real aim of these contracts is not agricultural development, much less rural development, but simply agri-business development.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Food cautioned in an open letter that large-scale investments could negatively affect the right to food, as well as other human rights, through:

»?Forcible eviction of land users with no formal security of tenure over the land they have been cultivating for decades;

»?Loss of access to land for indigenous people and pastoral populations, competition for water resources and decreased food security if local populations are deprived of access to productive resources; and

»?Dependency on food aid or imports for food security.

*?For comparative purposes: the Kruger National Park is two million hectares; and Belgium, a western European nation, is three million hectares

Cereal production

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