Land Grabbing

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By Fred Nelson:

Over the course of the past six years, the issue of land acquisition, commonly referred to as “land grabbing” in both popular media as well as academic discourse, has risen to near the top of the global development, human rights, and environmental conservation agendas. The reason for this sustained attention is obvious: Land is being transferred at unprecedented scale in ways that will permanently alter millions of people’s livelihoods and economic opportunities, in addition to landscapes and the environment, in ways that are probably irrevocable. Land rights lie at the heart of the social contract between states and their citizens, and the struggles of communities to keep control of their traditional lands could either lead to enhanced security, development, and growth or to an escalation of social and environmental damage.

The Economist, for example, last year cited a figure of around 80 million hectares — nearly 200 million acres or nearly twice the size of California — as being subject to “land grabbing.” The International Land Coalition (ILC) has compiled a land matrix documenting a total of 203 million hectares as approved or under negotiation between 2000 and 2010, while the World Bank estimates that 22 million hectares globally were subject to acquisition in 2008-2009 alone.

Underlying this surge in land acquisition around the world are fundamental economic changes in global commodity markets, as well as rising influence in these markets of countries such as Brazil, China, India, and South Africa. Between 2005 and 2011 the World Food Price Index doubled, with spikes in key staple foods in 2008 and again in 2011. Jeremy Grantham, a leading financial investor, notes in a recent letter to his fund’s clients that the world is, “about five years into a chronic global food crisis that is unlikely to fade for many decades,” recommending substantial portfolio investments in farmland, timber, and other natural resources.

Other commodity prices have followed similar trajectories as food prices; the global oil index rose nearly three-fold from 2005 to 2011. Both timber and now the emerging carbon credit market are also contributing to greater demand for land, while mining and tourism investments also contribute. Oil prices, combined with public policies in Europe and elsewhere to reduce carbon emissions, have led to a surge in interest in bio-fuels, which, according to the ILC global data, account for more than half of all land acquired during the past decade.

A final element of contemporary global land acquisition trends, which is the key to understanding how “land acquisition” becomes “land grabbing,” is the marked geographic concentration of these deals in Africa. For example, 70 percent of the deals reported by the World Bank for 2008-2009 were situated in Africa, while the ILC’s 2000-2010 land matrix figures represent 66 percent African lands (134 million out of 203 million hectares total; the former figure is over 4 percent of Africa’s total land area).

The reasons for land investments in agriculture, forestry, bio-fuels, and other industries targeting Africa include several basic elements. First, land is generally cheap, with prices for long-term leases often an order of magnitude less than land prices in southern Asia or parts of Latin America and, in some cases, no rent at all being charged by governments seeking to attract investors. Second, Africa has large areas of undeveloped or uncultivated land, at least creating the appearance of having land readily available for commercial investments in agriculture and other activities. Finally, most land in Africa is formally controlled by the state, making large areas of land relatively easy to acquire.

This global overview of land acquisition provides the backdrop for The Land Grabbers, in which Fred Pearce, a noted environmental journalist and frequent contributor to The Guardian, has compiled the first popular journalistic portrait of this issue on a global scale." (