Selling Land, Stealing Livelihoods

14 Dec

Today the International Land Coalition released a report they and several other organizations joined together to produce on the buying up of arable land in poor nations for immense personal and corporate profit. Think of a country where protests erupt — like Egypt — or where donors send money to help the poverty stricken — almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa — and you will find rural families’ inability to make a living at the root of their poverty. While they own tiny parcels of land that don’t allow them to eat, let alone prosper, either wealthy families or the state itself control extremely large swathes of it.

So the report and its findings make for dire news indeed. In fact, it’s hard to know where to begin. Researchers found purchase or lease deals adding up to 203 million hectares between 2000 and 2010, most of them in Africa. While 78 per cent of those deals they were able to cross-reference went to agriculture, only about a quarter was destined for the cultivation of food. The rest was for revenue-rich bio-fuel production.

Other scary conclusions include the fact the best, most fertile land is usually targeted for lease or purchase; that poor farmers are being dispossessed of both land held by custom and access to water; that rural women are particularly vulnerable; and that extensive areas of natural ecosystems are being felled for bio-fuel, tourism, industrial projects and so on.

“The competition for land is becoming increasingly global and increasingly unequal,” said ILC Director Madiodio Niasse in a press release from the International Institute for Environment and Development. “Weak governance, corruption and a lack of transparency in decision-making, which are key features of the typical environment in which large-scale land acquisitions take place, mean that the poor gain few benefits from these deals but pay high costs.”

I have posted twice already about these ‘new enclosures’ and written about foreign companies coming in to desperately poor nations to make use of their best land. But apparently, national elites – who are often let off the hook for taxes in order to attract investment — are playing a far larger role in land grabbing than previously thought.

What else lies behind this pernicious trend that will only deepen rural poverty in the third world?

It is actually the same political and economic structure that has people protesting from Wall Street to West Africa: the notion that financial elites know what is best for the rest of us. It simply flies in the face of common sense to think we should help the poor of the developing world with meager handouts and let big business convert their land into mega-estates.

But as the IIED’s Lorenzo Cotula (one of the report’s authors) put it, “Part of the problem is … that many policymakers think small-scale farming has no future and that large scale, intensive agriculture is the best way to achieve food security and support national development.”

Personally, I don’t think many policy makers truly believe that. I can’t help but surmise instead that affluent nation governments and the corporations that donate to their legislators think that there are still more ways to squeeze what little they have out of the world’s poorest.

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