The Race to Grab Farmland


“But land is land, and it’s safer than the stocks and bonds of Wall Street swindlers.” —- Eugene O’Neill, “Long Day’s  Journey Into Night

Today, though, land is not safe anymore as the increasing population, volatility of food prices and leveling off of yield is leading to a global rush to grab farmland before it runs out. Investors, agribusinesses and governments  are buying up land mostly in less developed areas where the population can be easily displaced as land records are not easily available. Some of these may be communal lands , held in trust over centuries so when they are taken over, the community is displaced and scattered and deprived of a livelihood.

Recent reports show that approximately 203 million acres of land has been acquired and the top land grabbers include the UK, the USA, China and Saudi Arabia. In Cambodia, about 55% of  the arable land is now under the control of agribusiness and foreign investors.  The investors who make these deals often make promises about providing employment to local workers or introducing new technology but these are seldom fulfilled. And what  about the actual crop that is grown? Chances are it would not be the traditional crop but one that is destined solely for export. In one case, Saudi Arabia decided to grow sorghum in Sudan, not for the Sudanese market where it is a food item, but for consumption by camels in their own country. As the decisions regarding crop choices changes, this might take food choices out of the market and exacerbate the problem of hunger in already vulnerable populations.

Last year’s drought in the US brought home the importance of water, a fact that will only become more evident as we deal with the impact of climate change. Land grabs also put this resource out of the public domain and into the hands of private investors. This presents a daunting challenge for poor rural populations depending on farming for a living. In future, they might have to pay extra for drinking and irrigation water.

How did we get here? Perhaps the first step was the morphing of agriculture into big business, the disconnect between profit and the provision of food on the table, and the second was the sad collusion of corrupt governments and predatory investors.This trend toward land grabs poses a grave challenge to food and livelihood security in the countries and communities where it occurs and also impacts what people elsewhere can put on their plates and how much they have to pay for it.

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