Land-Grabbing's Global Threat


By Carla Capalbo

Food-producing communities from 150 countries came to share ideas and experiences at the Slow Food joint Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre event this week in Turin, northern Italy. Of the many food-related issues that were brought to the table at this extraordinary five-day event, one of the most pressing is land-grabbing.

Land-grabbing is when private groups buy or gain control of vast areas of farmland in developing countries for producing food and biofuel crops for the first-world market. Africa, Asia and South America are particularly at risk in this modern land rush. Data compiled by the Land Matrix Project shows that 200 million hectares (772,000 square miles) -- an area of land eight times the size of Great Britain -- were sold or leased for foreign agricultural use between 2000 and 2010. Of these, 143 million hectares (552,000 square miles) are in Africa.

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"Hungry for land," a two-hour session on land-grabbing, brought together an international panel to discuss this serious and troubling trend that participants referred to as "neocolonialism," before an equally international audience of farmers, students, journalists and other interested parties.

Stefano Liberti, who chaired the meeting and is the author of an Italian book on the subject (an English edition is on the way) explained: "There's nothing new about the practice of using land in other parts of the world to facilitate food imports: Just think of the so-called banana republics of Central America.

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"Two factors make the current situation very different: the speed at which it's happening, and the type of people involved in the acquisitions. It's no longer traditional agribusinesses or farmers who are buying up land in Africa, but speculative capitalists looking for quick returns: hedge funds, private equity, even pension funds now consider this type of action a safe investment. And they have been mushrooming at an alarming rate since 2008."

In some cases, it is the governments of the African, Asian and South American countries that have enabled these acquisitions in an attempt to bring outside investment and capital into their countries' coffers -- at the cost of the local communities, which rarely see any of the benefits.

The attraction of lax laws, cheap labour and fertile land is proving irresistible in the run-up to the planet's population boom and its growing search for food. Industrialised countries are increasingly supporting themselves from land outside their own geographical confines.

"Globally, 70% of all arable land is being used to grow feed for animals," said Karin Ulmer, Senior Policy Officer on Trade, Food Security and Gender at APRODEV, in Brussels. With the intensive industrial farming methods that are prevalent in Europe and the U.S. today, it takes 12 to 14 calories of cereal to produce 1 calorie of meat. "This is a very inefficient use of land, as opposed to grass-fed animals, sustainable and integrated farming. We need to source less from other countries."

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Liliana Marcela Vargas Vásquez, of Asociación de Trabajo Interdisciplinario-ATI, Colombia, agreed. "There's been a huge increase of soya being grown in Patagonia to satisfy the ever-increasing demand in India and China for animal feed. Latin America is prey to land looters from within its countries and without, and life is becoming increasingly violent for many rural farmers seeking to defend their land against those who want to steal it."

"Land used by local communities is being leased or sold to outside investors, including corporations and governments," said Anne Van Schaik of Friends of the Earth Europe. In Africa, much of the land used by herdsmen is "commons" land, with no specific ownership, yet swaths of that land are being fenced off and converted to monocultures by and for the developed countries. "Access to land and water is a human right," she declared. "We don't need corporate control to feed the world. Unlike what we are being led to believe, 70% of the world is currently being fed by peasants, with 30% being fed by industrially produced food. The traditional models can work."

Mwanahamisi Salimu: 'farmers who resist are being evicted and killed'

Mwanahamisi Salimu, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager for Economic Justice of Oxfam Tanzania, gave a stirring account of the situation in her country. "Agriculture is very risky in Africa, as people may grab your land, and farmers who resist are being evicted and killed." She highlighted the role of women in this battle. "Women farmers are heroes in Africa. It is very difficult for them to own any land due to the patriarchal structure of society, and they are always at the bottom of the totem pole, with no access to credit and few rights. Yet they do the majority of the work." When they do have land, it is often the worst, least fertile land, on the margins of their villages. "Yet many courageous heroines are working the land despite the risks of violence they face."

So what can be done? Several speakers encouraged the audience not only to spread the word about land-grabbing, but specifically to put pressure on their banks, funds and other financial institutions to disclose where their investments are being made. Often, individual investors are unaware their money is being used for this purpose, and object when they discover it is.

Terre de Liens in France: buying and restructuring abandoned farms

A speaker in the audience from Terre de Liens, a civil society in France, recounted how a group of French farmers, worried about the buy-up of French farms by outside investors, had collected 26 million euros (nearly $34 million U.S.) to buy and restructure 100 abandoned farms, thereby ensuring they remained in local communities and were run sustainably and organically.

"In rural communities of the developing countries, more efficient agricultural models must be developed for Asia, Africa and South America," Liberti said. "Foreign investment in agriculture was initially encouraged based on the misguided assumption that it would aid local communities. The result has been the opposite. Local farmers must be supported and helped towards sustainable methods of agriculture, using modern technology when necessary for irrigation, storage and transportation, so they can be self-sufficient and retain their rights to their own land."

Photo: Mwanahamisi Salimu of Oxfam Tanzania. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Zester Daily contributor Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer who has been based in Italy for more than 20 years. Her book, "Collio: Fine Wines and Foods From Italy's Northeast" recently won the André Simon prize for best wine book, and her website is

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