Now Underway, An Outrageous International Land Grab

A massive international land grab is now underway as investors and national governments buy up millions of acres of farmlands in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  It amounts to an unprecedented and novel set of enclosures of worldwide land, much of it customary land that rural communities use and manage collectively.  Hundreds of millions of rural poor people rely upon the land for their families' food, water and material -- but they don't have formal property rights in the land.  Those rights typically belong to the government, which is authorizing the sale of “unowned” lands or "wastelands" to investors, who will then use the land for market-based farming or biofuels production.

The implications for global hunger and poverty are enormous.  Instead of commoners having local authority to grow and harvest their own food, they are being thrown off the land so that large multinational corporations and investors can feed their own countries or make a speculative killing on the world land market.  A commons is converted into a market, with all the attendant pathologies.

The 2008 financial crisis and the recent round of rising food prices on world markets have spurred much of the interest in buying up arable lands in poor countries.  Food-insecure countries figure they should take care of their own future even if it means depriving commoners in poor nations thousands of miles away.  So Saudi Arabia is spending $1 billion for 700,000 hectares of land in Africa for rice cultivation.  South Korea is buying up 700,000 hectares of African land as well.  India is assembling investment pools to buy up farmlands.

These are some of the disturbing facts to be found in Liz Alden Wily’s remarkable report, “The Tragedy of Public Lands:  The Fate of the Commons Under Global Commercial Pressure,” released by the International Land Coalition in January 2011.

I met Wily at the International Association for the Study of Commons conference in India shortly after her report was published.  She is a political economist from New Zealand who has lived in Africa for years – currently, in Nairobi, Kenya – and studies land tenure systems and governance as an independent consultant. 

Wily told me that the current land grab has the markings of an invidious neo-colonialism.  This time it is not imperial nations asserting direct military control and exploitation of people and resources; rather, the process now consists of international investors acting in consort with friendly governments via liberalized trade regimes.  The state, as the lawful owner of the lands, is often quite willing to help implement the enclosures, expediently seizing “unowned” lands on behalf of the buyers.  Governments and well-connected elites can make out quite nicely by brokering the deals and legalizing title to the land.

The whole problem stems from the law's presumptions about what is to be considered property.  Under European law, land must be registered and there must be a formal title, among other formalities.  But in poor rural regions of Africa, such civil formalities are expensive and difficult to transact.  Customary use rights in land are the norm.  Conveniently for foreign investors, this facilitates the acquisition of legal title and cheaper prices.

What’s missing is a law protecting the commons – a recognition of rights of community-based governance that can stand up to private or state enclosures. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions most affected by the international land grab; the problem is especially bad in Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern Sudan, Ethiopia and Madagascar.  It is estimated that some 90 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa, or some 500 million people, use their lands as a matter of custom, and do not have statutory title to them. 

All told, some 2 billion people around the world are estimated to be similarly vulnerable.  Some 8.54 billion hectares (or 21.1 billion acres) of rural lands are presumed to be used under customary norms. 

While champions of the free market like to tout the efficiency gains that will supposedly come from putting “unused” lands into production, such familiar narratives are self-serving propaganda.  As one account on the website Farm Land Grab puts it:

It’s a one-dimensional stereotype that…. ignores [farmers’] intricate knowledge of local resources, the crop varieties they have developed to cope with a wide range of soil and climatic conditions, their complex and resilient agro-ecological family farming systems. It misses the bigger picture, the myriad other crops that the woman [framer] cultivates on a very agro-biodiverse family farm, the valuable trees that she and her family depend on for income, food, fibre, medicine, wood and that the soils depend on for fertility and protection. It perpetuates the false notion that Africa’s family farms are inefficient and non-productive.

The real story here is not about free-market productivity, but rather about dispossession, displacement and the loss of food sovereignty.  Much of the investment in land is purely speculative, the result of too much capital roaming the world looking for lucrative returns.  As a result, the people who have for decades used common forests, rangelands and farmlands as sources of food and household supplies, are exiled from their own lands:  a modern-day enclosure of colossal proportions. 

“In light of the fact that most allocations to investors are in the form of renewable medium-term leases of up to 99 years, it may be expected that loss of common properties will remove these lands from meaningful access, use and livelihood benefit for at least one generation and potentially up to four generations,” writes Wily.  This is a recipe for decades of famine, poverty and political turmoil.

The whole, sordid trend eerily echoes the English enclosure movement of the 15th to 18th centuries:  Investors and national governments collude in the sale of lands, “legally” expelling commoners from lands they have used for generations.  International human rights law, indigenous people’s law and simple moral decency may regard the new land enclosures as outrageous offenses.  But poor rural communities are not very well equipped to assert their rights before national or international tribunals.

A copy of Liz Alden Wily’s report can be downloaded here as a pdf file. Farm Land Grab is also closely monitoring this odious, little-known enclosure of the commons.  Finally, see a report by GRAIN, a small international NGO concerned about farmers’ control over biodiversity and local knowledge:  “Seized:  The 2008 Land Grab for Food and Security.”