Tag Archives: land grabs

What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.


The Price of Sugar

13 Jul

It’s true. I haven’t wanted to replace my previous post on Brazil because the information in it is extremely important — and personal.

I also have been busy trying to make headway on my book about development aid.

But here is a must-see vide0 from the Guardian about sugar cane cutters in Cambodia, a tough, dirty job — cane is usually burnt before it’s harvested by machete — earning the people you will see a couple of dollars a day, if that. What makes it even worse is that they are working on land that used to be theirs, and was taken away, handed over to a corporation and is producing sugar for consumption in Europe. In other words, the kinds of farming practices that would never be allowed anywhere in Europe or North America are okay as long as it is carried out far away from the consumers.

This is a post about Cambodia …

9 Oct

People who keep up on these things — and it’s too bad that there aren’t more who do — are already probably aware of the troublesome spread of corporate agriculture into some of the world’s poorest countries, and how this cruelly deprives some of the most economically distressed people on the planet — small-holding peasant farmers — of their land.

But did you know that the World Bank actually helps them do so? And with your money?

A study by the WB’s own monitoring arm actually admitted that about 30% of its agribusiness-investment projects involved what it euphemistically called “involuntary resettlement” and impacted the lives of more than a million people.

This year the WB earmarked $5 million in soft loans for agribusiness in Cambodia, a nation where more than 2 million hectares of farmland has been cleared over the past several years so that the government can lease it to corporate agriculture.

Interestingly, the WB’s receiver bank in Cambodia didn’t get much interest (no pun intended) from potential borrowers. Other local banks were apparently offering loans at cheaper rates, according to a project report.

The WB also said that a portion its/our money was going to help “SMEs” — small and medium sized growers. While the Bank has no stats on its website to show sizes of acreages of the farmers who did borrow, I am guessing that the guy with a big family and a hectare or two would not be seeking help from the World Bank, then finding somewhere else with lower rates. It just doesn’t make sense.

And who certainly is in no position to borrow are the estimated 400,000 small-holding farmers who have been evicted by the Cambodian government in order to clear it for foreign takeover.

Violence has also been part of this whole enterprise. So far, three people have been killed, including a teenage girl during one of the forced evictions. And thirteen women are in jail for trying to stop the loss of their families’ lands and livelihoods.

According to a study by the Cambodia Development Research Institute, or CDRI, international banks are buying most of the vast leases on offer, and some 85 companies utilizing the areas to grow everything from teak to rubber to biofuels to sugar cane. There is even a Canadian company, based in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, of all places, that is about to expand onto 5000 acres to grow stevia, a plant that offers us first world fatties a zero-calorie sweetener.

According to the Guardian, perhaps the only paper covering these atrocities, “Those evicted to make way for superfarms are entitled to compensation, but rarely get it. Cambodia’s land title system is in shambles, and poor farmers rarely hold deeds for their land – even if they are legally entitled to them, based on possession rights.” (Actually it was Khmer Rouge psychopaths who destroyed all of the country’s landownership data.)

But today’s violence is indicative of something else: a fight back from below by peasant farmers, organized to demand justice. It includes human rights activists, land and environmental activists and even monks.

This follows the strike last May of 5000 garment workers, demanding a $30 pay rise on their incredibly meager monthly salary of $61. They are part of a $3.4 billion industry in Cambodia, making clothing for companies like J.Crew, Old Navy, Levis and The Gap.

We are increasingly dependent, it seems, on the global poor, who make the clothes we wear and give up the land on which the ingredients of our everyday possession are made, from soap to tires to furniture. They get a few dollars a day to make what we buy, all of this mediated by businessmen and banks.

But we should at the very least be aware of what the poor, whether in Cambodia or Haiti, are putting up with to supply us with our ‘things.’ And to recognize the strength and determination of the human spirit when they do their bit, at least, to push back against the machine.

Six Things I Just Learned About Land Grabs in Post-Kony Uganda

18 Mar

Last week I suggested that digging deeper into the roots of conflict and injustice in Africa should be on the cards for many, what with the mega-blow-up (and bizarre melt-down) of the whole Kony 2012 affair.

And so, since my movie date was cancelled, I have taken the past two hours I would have spent in a cinema researching land grabs in Uganda.

I was specifically looking at northern Uganda, nominally at peace now, but for how long? I found evidence of one spectacular case in the area of Amuru. There, the Madhvani Group of Companies, one of Uganda’s largest consortiums, looks to have successfully managed to get hold of a whopping 40,000 hectares of land on which it will grow sugar cane. Not surprising since its owner is a good pal of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. There was no information on how many people this will effect.  But one plaintiff, Jackeo Oballim, who tried to stop the deal in court, put it, “If they try to use force against our people, there will be another LRA in name of the land.”

It was easier to find cases in central Uganda, where a British company called New Forest is leasing 20,000 hectares of forest to grow pine and eucalyptus. According to an Oxfam report for 2011, more than 22,000 people have been evicted from three areas in order to give New Forest free rein.  Meanwhile another 2,000 people have been evicted in the Mubende region by the Ugandan army so that a German company called Neumann Koffee Gruppe can use it for coffee plantations.

But the largest deal involved the government of Egypt that began talks three years ago with the Ugandan government to take over an astonishing 840,000 hectares throughout the country for wheat and corn production. Its test farm will be located in Gulu.

According to a study by Samuel Mabikke, ever larger percentages of the arable land in poor African countries are slated for lease by all manner of moneyed multinationals. Citing the Global Land Project, he points out that in Uganda the deals represent more than 14 per cent of its farmland, 21 per cent in Mozambique, and an astonishing 48 percent in the D.R. Congo. “ Thus,”  he writes, “the consequences of these land deals can be expected to be very large for the local population and environment, with impacts such as agricultural intensification, forest degradation, and displacement of local populations, increasing local food insecurity and increasing poverty.”

Is that six things? I have no idea. But the point is that, as I’ve argued in previous posts, injustice and land poverty continues to thrive in some of the poorest and most conflictive parts of Africa. But apparently while there are still profits to be made, land grabbing will not be receiving the kind of attention Kony 2012 did. And it is more than likely that, as Mr. Oballim suggests, wars and conflicts won’t be going away any time soon.