[Marxism] The new land grab

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 19 16:38:43 MST 2008

Rich countries carry out '21st century land grab'

HISTORY may be repeating itself. Until the mid-20th century, many 
European countries grew rich on the resources of their colonies. Now, 
countries including China, Kuwait and Sweden are snapping up vast 
tracts of agricultural land in poorer nations, especially in Africa, 
to grow biofuels and food for themselves.

The land grabs have sparked accusations of neocolonialism and fears 
that the practice could worsen poverty. Yet some organisations think 
this could be a chance for poor countries to trade land and labour 
for the technology and investment vital for developing their own food 
and energy production.

The rush for land was triggered by this year's food crisis and the 
European push for biofuels. The South Korean firm Daewoo made 
headlines last week when it sought a 99-year lease on 1.3 million 
hectares of Madagascar to grow maize and oil palm. The deal is far 
from unusual.

A number of companies are growing sugar cane in Tanzania, for 
example, to make bioethanol for European countries to meet European 
Union targets. This year, investors from Gulf states initiated so 
many farm projects in Africa and south-east Asia that the UN Food and 
Agriculture Organization (FAO) urged caution to prevent a political backlash.

"Egypt is investing in Sudan; Libya in Ukraine; Saudi Arabia in 
Thailand; China in Africa, the Philippines and Russia," says Joachim 
von Braun, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute 
(IFPRI) in Washington DC.

As population growth and dwindling oil supplies make farmland the 
strategic resource that oilfields are now, the hunger for land looks 
set to increase. China has 20 per cent of the world's people and only 
9 per cent of the farmland, and that is dwindling. According to a 
detailed analysis by the NGO Grain, Chinese companies and the 
government have since 2007 leased or purchased 2 million hectares of 
foreign farmland.

Financial firms have been quick to get in on the act too, and are 
moving their money from food to the land that produces it. The 
British hedge fund manager Dexion Capital, for instance, plans to 
invest $270 million in 1.2 million hectares in Australia, Russia and 
South America.

The question is whether incoming technology and investment can be 
harnessed to increase food production for the poorer countries 
themselves. Although the global financial crisis has halted the rise 
in food prices, this week IFPRI warned that the slowdown will also 
cut investment in farming, which will raise food prices by up to 27 
per cent by 2020.

All foreign deals so far pledge to turn "unused" or "underutilised" 
land into farmland to yield food. This might sound good on paper, but 
the reality is not so clear cut.

All foreign deals so far pledge to turn 'unused' land into farmland 
to yield food. But is the land really unused?

First, is the land really unused? Many analysts agree that most land 
that can be farmed is already in use, but some disagree. "Africa 
still has lots," says Peter Hartmann, head of the non-profit 
International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria. 
He says for every hectare of African farmland there are around 2.5 
hectares of "equivalent rainfed arable land" unused for want of 
technology or capital.

But seemingly unoccupied land is probably used for at least part of 
the year by someone, says Michael Taylor of the International Land 
Coalition (ILC), which groups 65 agencies, from local farm groups to 
the World Bank, concerned with land access. Nomadic herders, rarely a 
priority for governments, are being dispossessed by bioethanol 
developments in Kenya, he says, and they also depend on the "unused" 
land that Madagascar offered Daewoo. Ethiopia's communal lands, such 
as grazing areas, are being leased to private investors, says 
anthropologist Marco Bassi of the University of Oxford. "This will 
destroy shifting cultivators and pastoralists."

In many cases, land is used by such people because its soil or water 
is unsuitable for intensive cultivation. The danger, then, is that 
foreign leaseholders might extract what they can from these areas, 
then leave once soil and water resources have been exhausted.

Some people see upsides, though. "I could imagine such land use 
benefiting people," says Hartmann. Foreign investors build roads, 
storage and port facilities that local farmers can also use to sell 
crops - a bottleneck in much of African agriculture.

"Such investments are not to be generally condemned," says von Braun. 
Leaseholders might press for better tax situations for farmers, while 
host countries could insist on local hiring. Some investors are even 
offering schools and healthcare facilities, although in the past such 
promises have notoriously not been kept.

The best option would be for foreign firms to contract local small 
farmers to grow crops for them, says Paul Mathieu of the FAO. 
"Investors could say, if you use this seed and follow our advice we 
promise to buy the crop. That could be a win-win situation." German 
company Flora Eco Power produces biodiesel in Ethiopia in this way.

"These deals could provide more security and predictability for poor 
farmers than just selling crops on open markets," agrees Duncan Green of Oxfam.

However, existing arrangements of this kind are generally "between 
partners with vastly unequal power", says Green, and they offer few 
guarantees for locals. Hartmann and von Braun say a code of conduct 
is needed, and that it must include provisions for local producers, 
property rights, sustainable management and transparent rules. The 
FAO is now trying to write such guidelines, says Mathieu.

They will be no good if no one uses them, though, and so far there is 
little sign that investors are keen to work with locals. Many Chinese 
projects, for example, bring in farmers from China. If the 
foreign-owned farms simply take the crops and run, offering nothing 
to local people, it could be a recipe - as Europe's colonialists 
discovered - for trouble.

More information about the Marxism mailing list