The Great Land Rush: Land Grabs & Food Security

Crosslinked at Bertelsmann Stiftung – Future Challenges Organization

The Great Land Rush and Food Security

What is land?

Many of us don’t think about what land really means. An economist might define land as the totality  of natural resources in a given area, while a lawyer might focus on  land, water and mineral rights. But a farmer’s answer might be simpler: land is the farmer’s capital. Land is the soil and  water utilized in the production of crops for the local or global market. In the context of an increasingly globalized world, land rights are paramount, particularly in the Global South (Asia, South America, Africa and Australia). As governments and multinational corporations buy up land, small farmers and indigenous groups are edged out.

A Global Phenomenon

A 2010 World Bank study showed that 110 million acres (44,515,420.7 hectares) of farmland worldwide were sold or leased in the first eleven months of 2009 alone;  70 percent of these land deals were concentrated in Mali, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Mozambique.

Before 2008, land was sold or leased at an average annual rate of  10 million acres (4,046,856.42 hectares). However, in the last four years alone, nearly 148 million acres (about 60 million hectares) of land on the continent of Africa has been acquired by international investors and government bodies. This surge in land grabbing and speculation deserves attention because it poses a grave threat to regional food security, indigenous land and water rights.

These land deals are not just confined to the continent of Africa (which holds nearly two-thirds of the world’s remaining arable land). In the Middle East,  Bahrain has seen political upheaval and protest in the wake of a major land deal within its borders. White South African farmers are buying up land in Georgia while in the Ukraine, the state is planning to buy up 30 percent of the nation’s land to bolster the country’s food security. In Australia, in a similar move a Chinese company has offered to buy 80,000 hectares of farmland.

In one of Asia‘s poorest nations, 15 percent of Cambodian land has been signed over to private companies (made easier by the Khmer Rouge’s  prohibition of private property and subsequent burning of all land titles). In South America, the Brazilian government has shown its openness to greater foreign investment in rural land. In today’s globalized world economy, these land deals have far-reaching effects.

Why the rush for land?

Factors driving the land grab include population pressure, the burgeoning middle class in the Global South and its heightened demand for foodstuffs, in concert with individual countries’ concerns over food security. As ready access to food is essential to a politically stable nation, food security can have major political effects.

This was seen in 2009 in Madagascar when a land deal with a South Korean conglomerate that would have handed over half of Madagascar‘s arable land was met with mass protests and led to the overthrow of then-President Ravalomanana.

As demand for food stuffs increases to levels that outstrip current production capacity, production of biofuels is another factor impinging on global food security. The price of corn rose 130% between January and June 2011 due to a steady rise in demand for corn-based ethanol. Consequently, the price of wheat, a substitute for corn, has skyrocketed in the same period. Furthermore, as prices rise, more farmers allocate land to cultivate corn, which could pose a serious risk to food security on a broader scale.

Popular Misconceptions

Contrary to popular opinion, increased grain consumption in countries like India and China has not been a major factor in higher global demand and higher prices. In  China and India –  both developing nations with growing economies and rising per capita incomes which together  make up almost 40 percent of the world population – grain consumption has not increased. A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study on the relationship between price volatility and food security has shown that speculators have had a far greater impact on grain prices than demand from developing countries. . This is especially true after the biofuels boom seen in the last decade. In fact, many of the land grabs today are the acts of commodities speculators in concert  with investment funds, agribusiness and government agencies.

And Popular Protests

The stark reality behind these land grabs is displacement of longtime inhabitants, loss of livelihoods, and threats to regional food security. The speculators in today’s land grabs share a common mentality with Henry Morton Stanley who spoke of the continent of Africa as an “unpeopled country” in the mid-nineteenth century.  Many reports on land deals erase or simply ignore the rights of the people living on the land and show a blatant disregard for  customary land rights. In South Sudan, the Mukaya people are currently protesting an agreement between their leadership and the Texas-based Nile Trading and Development Inc that leases 600,000 hectares of their land for 49 years and gives NTD unlimited land, water and mineral rights for the duration.

Findings at the April 2011 International Conference on Global Land Grabbing overwhelmingly supported the thesis that the global land grab has not been advantageous to the poor or small farmers. As the majority of land deals are not linked to food production, but biofuels and industrial
products, more and more arable land is diverted away from food production. The findings of this conference will be central to policy-making at the 37th Session of the United Nations (UN) Committee on Food Security (CFS) in October 2011.

In China, around 65 percent of the population are farmers and migrant workers. In 2005, 30,000 Chinese protesters in the eastern town of Huaxi took part in riots over the illegal granting of land rights to thirteen chemical plants, citing contamination of their soil and water supply, and an increasing number of miscarriages and illnesses. Such land deals are not uncommon in China. About 37 percent of 1,564 villages in 17 provinces and autonomous regions have been subject to land confiscation over the past decade. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, farmers in 60 percent of villages where land was confiscated reported being dissatisfied with the compensation they received.

Among the reasons for their dissatisfaction, farmers stated that compensation was too low to reap any long-term future benefit and that the government had never inquired how much compensation they wanted. Other survey respondents reported that the real market value of the land was higher than what the government actually gave them. 23.4 percent of those polled stated that their compensation money had been embezzled by local officials while 29 percent  reported that they could not find jobs or sources of income to make up for the loss of their land.  This survey specifically targeted Chinese farmers affected by land deals, but the issues it deals with have a much broader geographical relevance. Violation of land rights undercuts regional social security.

The Case of Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, the average cost of leasing one acre is one US dollar, which is far below market price. The lack of accountability and transparency on the part of the parties involved in these land deals is another major issue. While urbanization is changing the population makeup, land deals are still salient for rural Ethiopians who are exposed to poverty and food insecurity. The increased use of Ethiopian land for biofuels diverts land from food production which is especially important for a country that has consistently been Africa‘s biggest recipient of food aid.

As more Ethiopians become dependent upon the global food market, they also become more vulnerable to fluctuations in prices. Food prices in Ethiopia have recently shot up 50 percent, while the Ethiopian Birr has been devalued in the wake of increased demand for the US dollar and the Euro (driven by an influx of food aid to East Africa for famine relief). Taken together, these factors pose a grave threat to the food security of a nation already dependent upon food aid.

What Land Deals have in Common

Not all land deals are the same. Some are long-term land leases, others involve the transfer of land title from the state or community to investment funds, agribusiness entities or government bodies. What many of them have in common, however, is the potential to undermine regional food security through displacement of small farmers or diversion of arable land for the cultivation of biofuels, or more indirectly through devastation of the environment caused by deforestation and mining. This is particularly apparent in areas where war and political upheaval have displaced small farmers and undermined the development of agricultural infrastructure as in Somalia (where up to 66 percent of the land was signed away to American oil conglomerates) and Cambodia.


The big questions for which we now must find answers are: how can we make these land deals more equitable and beneficial to indigenous people and small farmers? How can we foster greater transparency on the part of the deal-makers? How can these land deals bolster food security? And how do we regulate and prevent destruction of the environment?

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