The new ‘enclosures’

26 Dec

Historians say the roots of the capitalist system go back to the time when Britain’s aristocracy took over and ‘enclosed’ the common lands hundreds of thousands of peasants relied on to survive (thus turning them into a working class that would have no choice but work for others.) Now a new sort of enclosure threatens even greater numbers of the rural poor throughout the developing world. A largely secret and unprecedented land grab by some of the world’s wealthiest corporations is taking place in Africa, Southeast Asia and Brazil.

They are using their financial clout to lease and buy land for large-scale food and bio-fuel production in order to assure themselves of a steady supply – in large part spurred on by last year’s food crisis.  Rather than demand enabling peasant farmers to produce and sell more, they will be by-passed at best, and simply kicked off their land at worst. This will happen in particularly countries where land tenure is unclear. In fact, that is probably why certain low-income nations with unaccountable power structures (read dictatorial governments) were chosen in the first place.

Some examples: Korean company Daewoo Logistics arranged for a 99-year lease of a million hectares of land in Madagascar to produce grain for Korean consumers, along with oil palm on another 120,000 hectares. Investors from Abu Dhabi have bought thousands of hectares of land for commodity production in Sudan and Pakistan, while the Binladen Group from Saudi Arabia is looking at a major land purchase in Indonesia to grow rice. The Saudis have also paid $100 million for land in desperately poor Ethiopia to grow wheat and barley, and have done the same in Chad. 

According to an article by Julian Borger in the Guardian, “Even China, which has plenty of land but is now getting short of water as it pursues breakneck industrialization, has begun to explore land deals in south-east Asia. Laos, meanwhile, has signed away between 2m-3m hectares, or 15% of its viable farmland. Libya has secured 250,000 hectares of Ukrainian farmland, and Egypt is believed to want similar access. Kuwait and Qatar have been chasing deals for prime tracts of Cambodia rice fields.” China already, in fact, owns large tracts of farmland in Algeria and Zimbabwe.

In Brazil, meanwhile, where 12 million of peasants lack land of their own, China, Saudi Arabia and even Iran are pursuing land deals. A joint venture controlled by Japan’s Mitsui has already bought 100,000 hectares. So as poor Brazilians must struggle to occupy land by force, often waiting years in terrible conditions as they wait for the state to expropriate, foreign millionaires can breeze in and buy up what they like.

What’s more many of those countries are not even hiring locals to cultivate the land for them. Daewoo, for example, plans to use migrant labour from South Africa, while some estimates suggest that more than one million ethnic Chinese farm workers will soon be living on the African continent. And the two million hectares the Saudi government and other Gulf States have bought in Pakistan come with a 100,000-man army to protect them.

So the super rich will grow food in counties full of starving people, an idea that defies all moral and common sense even as it wholly embodies capitalist logic.  Militant rural movements of the poor may well be the only the only antidote to such a venomous and unjust tendency. Indeed, the latest article I’ve read on the subject reports that the Madagascar deal may have fallen through thanks to local protests. Yet other nations with corrupt and authoritarian governments are just waiting to take its place. While I hope that the determination and strength shown by those who have already won land through struggle will spread, we in the affluent nations of the world need to take notice and look for ways to support that.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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