Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg

‘Land grabs’ in agriculture: Who benefits?

The trend of international land grabbing — when governments and private firms invest in or purchase large tracts of land in other countries for the purpose of agricultural production and export — can have serious environmental and social consequences, according to researchers at the Worldwatch Institute. Deals that focus solely on financial profit can leave rural populations more vulnerable and without land, employment opportunities, or food security.

The trend has accelerated as countries that lack sufficient fertile land to meet their own food needs — such as wealthier countries in the Middle East and Asia, particularly China — have turned to new fields in which to plant crops. “Growing demand and rising prices for food are leading some wealthier developing countries to seek secure access to food-producing land in the territory of lower-income ones,” said Robert Engelman, executive director of Worldwatch. “If all governments capably represented the interests of their citizens, these cash-for-cropland deals might improve prosperity and food security for both sides. But that’s not often the case. It’s critical that international institutions monitor these arrangements and find ways to block those that are one-sided or benefit only the wealthy.”

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reports that about 15-million to 20-million hectares of farmland were the subject of deals or proposed deals involving foreigners between 2006 and mid-2009. Additional land acquisitions occurred in 2010, including deals in Ethiopia and Sudan, according to Andrew Rice, author of The teeth may smile but the heart does not forget and contributing author to the recent Worldwatch report State of the world 2011: Innovations that nourish the planet.

Critics of large-scale land acquisitions believe that the land grabs are marginalising the land rights of local residents, particularly indigenous populations, and compromising food security in the host countries. “[Critics] predict that the outcome will not be development but a litany of dire possible consequences: xenophobia, riots, coups, and more hunger,” writes Rice. Several organisations, including GRAIN, Oxfam and the Oakland Institute have reported on the negative consequences that such land deals have on developing countries.

Conversely, some experts argue that the agricultural development that occurs through land deals can provide poor countries with money, infrastructure, resources, and increases in food security. The International Institute for Economic Development, World Bank, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, and International Fund for Agricultural Development all have published documents highlighting the economic possibilities associated with international land deals.

Nourishing the planetrecommends three critical considerations to help guide global land transactions to promote mutual benefit:

  • Well-defined land ownership
    Research shows that when land is legally titled, economic productivity improves. Figuring out who owns the land before acquisitions take place can help ensure the interests of smallholder farmers, promote local economic growth, and support community coordination with international investors. A country’s history and lack of property rights can make land titling complicated. In Ethiopia’s Gambella region, for example, much “unused” agricultural land is traveled by livestock herders, left to fallow, or used for hunting and gathering by indigenous people. These traditional land uses are easily dismissed without property rights.
  • International cooperation and consent
    Development experts agree that local residents should provide free, “prior and informed consent” to investors and government officials before land deals occur. But defining this consent and ensuring that deals operate within this rubric can be difficult. In the case of Mozambique, the government declared in 2007 that 30-million hectares of land was open for private investment. Although the government instituted consultations with local residents affected by potential deals, many local participants reported coercion, asymmetric information, and multiple sales of single titles. As a result, the government was forced to halt the deals altogether.
  • Complementing land deals with domestic infrastructure development.
    Many land deals require additional investment in infrastructure to make the land suitable for efficient agricultural production. When coordinated with local residents, this outside investment can lead to local employment and economic growth. At India’s West Garo Hills Tea Factory, for example, a government agency paid for some processing machinery, a private company offered additional machinery, factory design, and training, and local communities provided land, bricks, and labor. Not only does the partnership provide local jobs, but the processed tea from the factory is divided between the community and a private tea company.

To purchase your own copy of State of the world 2011: Innovations that nourish the planet, please click here. To watch the one minute book trailer, click here.

  • BigMan Junda

    The question should be “who benefited out of scramble for africa?” It will be na├»ve indeed to overlook historical facts when dealing with land in South Africa,given the track record of colonialism and apartheid. Without mincing my words,land is still stolen property in South Africa, and that on its own poses a great threat if not thoroughly dealt with,in bold,fair manner without fear or favour.

    I really envy Zimbabwe for having taken bold initiatives to deal with land issue so practically,no fear or favour again,but just historical facts dictated the decisions to be made,it wasn’t easy though,but they made it and surely they will soldier on,towards their destination as nation of the brave,not puppets and stooges.

  • Jon

    @BigMan Junda

    You kidding. Mugabe giving land to his buddies does not worng the historical effect of colonialism. Historical facts were not considered at all it was a matter of you are my friend here is a farm for your to destroy.

    I wonder how Grace Mugabe’s farms are doing- you know the ones which were given to her to wrong the evils of colonialism.

    Idiot.

  • robbo

    I don’t envy Zimbabwe at all. The land issue was well recognised, the only reason Mugabe unleashed the “wovets” was in response to the referendum of 2000 or thereabouts when the farmers made the strategic error of getting involved in politics. Mugabe set out to destroy the farmers – and succeeded.

    As a by product he destroyed the economy as well.

    And people like you believe the “no fear no favour” bullshit. Of course there’s both fear and favour. Intense fear of the Zanu-PF and wovet thugs and favour towards those lackeys of the Zanu-PF government.

    “land is still stolen property in South Africa” That may be – the Xhosas migrated down the coast from the north, stealing the land from the original inhabitants. Behind them came the Zulus, stealing the land from whomever they conquered. Or does that not count?

    Stop whinging and whining with your entitlement attitude, put your head down and do some work like the rest of us.

  • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

    @BigMan Junda:
    It might be wise to do some research regarding the amount of land that the South African government already owns.

    There is simply no justification for stealing privately owned land, especially since historically most agricultural land was bought and negotiated with people already living there, or there were no people living there in the first place.

    No sound mind can envy Zimbabwe, especially judging by the 5 million or so Zimbabweans who are currently in South Africa.

  • Thibelamambuka

    @Garg Unzola
    Which South African history are you reading? Because that certainly did not happen in South Africa we live in.

  • Oldfox

    Interesting story in a recent Farmer’s Weekly about Crawford Von Abo, the South African born farmer who lost R700 million worth of farming assets in Zim when his farms were confiscated. All he took out of Zim, were two Landcruisers.
    He went to an area of the then Southern Rhodesia in the early 50s. The land was fertile, but there were no natives living in the vicinity where he settled, as there was no river or lake (or shallow wells) to support people. He went to the Orange Free State in SA to recruit farm workers, to take back to Rhodesia. He sunk boreholes, but they did not last long. Eventually, he built a 30km water pipeline, to get water to his farms.
    Clearly, he did not take land from people who were farming there at the time. There are no doubt many similar stories about white owned farms in Zim and South Africa.

  • benzo

    This “stolen land” story? What land was stolen and where (GPS coordinates, please), when, from who and by who.

    All countries in Europe were somehow conquered, occupied and made to work for the people who occupy the land today. They do not whinge about their “stolen land”.

    Much of the land that was given back to the people of Africa lies unproductive, beautifull farm homes have been stripped and many erstwhile farm workers are now hungry and poor as they were before their land was “stolen” from them.

    Do you really want to turn the clock back some 300 years? Please come off it! We are getting sick and tired of this “stolen land” story. Just go and work the land you have before you claim more than you can handle.

  • http://www.mzolozolo.blogspot.com Khanda-shisa

    What a brave deed you have done Mr. Nierenburg, the land issue, foreighn investment or investors that are always put to fore of every argument that arise from issues that are meant address the side effects of capitalism that see the poor being deprived even more as the time passes.

    There is no idiocy in all the intentions that see us commenting on these sensitive subjects we are presented with on this platform as they continue to touch us in defferent ways simply because of our backgrounds. So Jon we are all in the same trenches and if you don’t like someone’s angle to that issue just simply agree to disagree with them, you both coming fron different influences and experience to some lengnthly extent by the very fact that the one is black and the other is white, otherwise you are twice an idiot you claim they are.

  • Jack Sparrow

    Hmm, I’m pleased to see the “stolen land” excuse taking a few well-deserved smacks. If the land was stolen it was stolen from the only people indigenous to SA; the San people. So that’s probably why restitution stops rather arbitarily at 1913. Imagine the can of worms if it went further back.

  • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

    @Thibelamambuka:
    Please read South Africa’s history.

    @Benzo:
    Zimbabwe did manage to turn the clock back 300 years. They aren’t very happy with the results.

    @Khanda-sisha:
    The side effects of capitalism cannot keep people poor. Products need consumers. It is in the best interests of capitalists to create wealth. You might be interested in this documentary on globalisation. Notice how Kenyan farmers are kept poor – not by capitalism, but because there is too much regulation and interference in their agricultural sector for their crops to be competitive. Kenyan farmers are kept poor by subsidies, but their flower industry is less regulated and this is booming.

  • GUY EMSLIE

    STOLEN LAND,IMPERIALISTS,TOO MANY WHITE’S IN MANAGEMENT POSITIONS, THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID,PREVIOUSLY DISADVANTAGED,I AM SO TIRED OF LISTENING TO AND READING THE SAME BUZZ WORDS TO HIDE THE REAL ISSUES WE ARE FACING IN THIS COUNTRY.

    WE ALL KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PAST, WE DECIDED TO RECONCILE AND BUILD THE COUNTRY, BUT HOW CAN WE BUILD A COUNTRY WHERE A GOVERNMENT CANNOT RECOGNISE THE ONE BASIC CORNERSTONE TO SECURE THE FUTURE OF THIS COUNTRY. WE NEED AN EXCELLENT EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM, A SYSTEM WHERE WE CAN TEACH OUR CHILDREN THE VALUES OF SOCIAL AND MORAL SKILLS AND ETHICS. THIS GOVERNMENT KNOWS THAT TO CREATE A CLEVER CHILD IS TO CREATE A FORWARD THINKING CITIZEN. THE PROBLEM IS THAT SUCH A CITIZEN WILL NOT BE HAPPY TO HAVE CRIMINALS AND LOOTERS AT THE HELM, BECAUSE THEY WOULD HAVE THE ABILITY TO SEE PAST THE BULLSHIT, PROPAGANDA AND POLITICAL RETORIC.
    MOST POLITICIANS I KNOW ARE BULLSHITTERS AND EGOISTS WHO CARE VERY LITTLE FOR THEIR FELLOW MAN. IT IS ALL FOR THE POSITION AND STATUS.

    IF THE GOVERNMENT HAVE’NT DEPRIVED YOU FROM THE BASIC SKILL TO READ(INCLUDING THE PAST GOVERNMENT) AND YOU CAN READ THIS, MAKE IT YOUR MISSION TO INFORM THE LESS FORTUNATE ABOUT THE GOIINGS ON OF THEIR LEADERS, JUST REMEMBER THAT SUCH PEOPLE WILL HAVE TO TRUST YOU, BEFORE THEY WILL ACCEPT YOUR WORD AS THE TRUTH. WE THE HARDWORKING PEOPLE OF THIS COUNTRY WILL BE THE SAVIOURS OF OUR DESTINY AFTER THE LOOTERS LEFT.