Your Land is My Land
In June 2013, Fairtrade International CEO Harriet Lamb met Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, when she spoke at the 20th Anniversary of Fairtrade Austria. Oakland Institute is doing important work exposing land grabs and defending the rights of the people living in these sensitive areas. Anuradha submitted the following blog post explaining the impact of land grabs and how they can affect smallholder farmers, indigenous populations, and the pastoralists around the world ultimately jeopardizing food sovereignty for millions.
By Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of Oakland Institute
The Fair Trade movement emerged to ensure that the benefits of trade extended more fairly throughout supply chains providing a dignified life for smallholder farmers and their families. Today smallholders around the world are facing a threat beyond unfair trade – the theft of their land and water – a trend that has come to be known as land grabs.
In 2009, nearly 56 million hectares (ha) of arable land – an area the size of France – was purchased or leased, over 70 percent of it in Africa. These ‘land investments’ are when wealthy food-insecure nations and private investors purchase or lease vast tracts of land in mostly poor, developing countries for the production and export and food and crops for agrofuels.
In many ways, the global land grab was spurred by the 2008 food crisis as rich countries with limited land and water resources began to look to the resources of developing countries. Similarly, agribusiness in China, South Korea, United States, Europe, India, Sweden, and Brazil, coveted land to grow crops for export markets.
Oakland Institute research shows that sovereign wealth funds, multinational companies, pension funds, university endowments and domestic capital are all in on the game. As a result, governments in developing countries are signing away control over food, land, and trade for decades to come. These contracts rarely require investors to sell crops on domestic markets, ensure livelihoods, conduct environmental assessments, or conserve water resources.
Beginning in 2011 the Oakland Institute (OI), a California-based policy think tank, began releasing findings on the impact of land investments. These investments are usually painted as a development opportunity to generate income and employment. However extensive field research showed a lack of government oversight and transparency as large, foreign agro-businesses acquired land at giveaway prices, while providing little to no economic benefit to the local communities.
Furthermore, oppressive government policies are forcibly removing hundreds of thousands of people from their land to make way for large mechanized farms. Altogether, these large-scale investments in land in developing countries are resulting in food insecurity, displacement of small farmers, further marginalizing the pastoralists and the indigenous, fueling conflict, environmental devastation, water loss, and political instability.
Who is investing?
To date, most news coverage has focused on land grabs in Africa by countries like China and the Gulf States, but Oakland Institute’s research also highlighted the major role of western firms, wealthy US and European individuals, and investment funds with ties to major banks.
- These investors include firms like the London-based Emergent Asset Management working through EmVest to attract speculators, including U.S. universities seeking high returns for their endowments. Awareness of such investments mobilized students at Harvard and Vanderbilt demanding ethically-managed endowments.
- Several Texas-based interests were associated with a major 600,000 hectare South Sudan deal, which involved Kinyeti Development, LLC, managed by Howard Eugene Douglas, a former United States Ambassador at Large and Coordinator for Refugee Affairs. The land in question is home to nearly 90,000 people. Research revealed that the land was signed away by a ‘fictitious co-op’ put together by ‘influential natives’. Once alerted communities who managed to stall the deal.
- The largest land deal in Tanzania involved the Iowa agribusiness entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter, who serves as CEO of Summit Farms. Rastetter was appointed to the Iowa Board of Regents and until early 2012, Iowa State University provided “private” research services that benefitted Rastetter’s investments in Tanzania. Once exposed by the Oakland Institute, the university withdrew from the deal. Without the advocacy and publicity created by our work, the AgriSol Energy land deal more than likely would have displaced 162,000 people and tilled under a vibrant community with ample food production to make way for agrofuel and genetically modified crops for export.
- Many European companies are also involved, often with support provided by their governments and embassies in African countries. Major investors in Sierra Leone include Addax Bioenergy from Switzerland while SOCFIN Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd. is a subsidiary of the Belgo-Luxembourgish company, SOCFIN, whose main shareholder is Bolloré Group, owned by the prominent French entrepreneur Vincent Bolloré.
The Myth of Unused Lands
Those promoting land investments as the new development paradigm claim that their initiatives target unused and unproductive lands while providing employment and growth opportunities to the local populations. Oakland Institute’s research showed that while much of the so-called ‘unused’ land is depicted as fallow land or forests, local farmers and communities use the land for a wide range of purposes (collection of timber, wild food, firewood, medicinal plants, protection of watersheds, protection against erosion, etc.).
- In Ethiopia, the current ‘villagization’ process – or forced resettlement – impacts nearly 1.5 million indigenous people clearing them from the lands eyed by large-scale investors. Read more here.
- In Samana Dugu in Mali in 2010, when bulldozers moved in to clear the land, men, women and youth from the community gathered to protest the cutting of their trees, but were met by police forces, who beat and arrested them. Read more here.
- In Cameroon, Herakles Farms is attempting to creat one of the world’s largest palm oil plantations, clearing native habitats to make room for palm oil plantations nearly 12 times the size of Manhattan. Oakland Institute and Greenpeace International released documents highlighting the company’s ambitions and the potential impacts on local populations. Read more here.
Instead of using marginal or infertile land as often claimed, most deals are actually taking place in the vicinity of important water resources, near other infrastructure (railways, roads), or on fertile ground. Major African rivers – the Nile, the Zambezi and the Niger – are tapped by these land grabs, which cede control – not only over land – but also over water. As an investor told the Oakland Institute team, “Internally we call our land fund, water fund.”
Regarding the promises of job creation, first-hand evidence from the Oakland Institute’s field research in multiple African nations and the analysis of over 100 land deals reveal that promises of new jobs are overstated, if not completely false. “Modern” agricultural schemes are highly mechanized and provide relatively few jobs, which are often short-term or seasonal.
Not only are these foreign corporations failing to follow through on promises of jobs, in some cases they are actually taking jobs away from local workers by importing more easily exploitable immigrant laborers. Countries like Uganda and Kenya have been pressured into granting exemptions from local labor laws and this has created a race to the bottom for desperate workers. Growing opposition to land grabs is not a rebuke to the very real efforts to bring infrastructure and aid to Africa. However, it must serve as an imperative for the international community to proceed with the understanding that Africa is open for business, not for theft.
For more information on this important issue, please visit www.oaklandinstitute.org.