Throughout the world, land is increasingly disappearing. Farmland is being stripped from its long-time owners by large corporations, destroying cultural ties, traditional agriculture, and ancestral grounds along the way. Within the past few years, the Global North has bought out huge chunks of Southern territory through large scale land acquisition deals. In colloquial terms, this recent phenomenon of international land transactions is known as land grabbing.
Land grabbing is the buying or leasing of substantially expansive pieces of land in undeveloped/developing countries. These transactions are often completed by large transnational companies and governments, but individual players also contribute on occasion. Agricultural territory in the Southern Hemisphere, Africa especially, is purchased and transformed for the purpose of food or biofuel production. In fact, most land grabbing deals end up being dedicated to producing crops used in biofuel, like the un-edible Jatropha plant.
Utilizing land for non-food crops instead of food production became popular following the worldwide for crisis of 2007. When grain and soybean prices more than doubled over the course of a year, people panicked and serious steps were taken to curb the inflation, like restrictions of grain exports. With food security in question, corporations from importing countries began buying up land in areas all around the globe to protect themselves from future strife. However, such deals ended up having an adverse, opposite effect in the long run. Instead of keeping agriculture as the top priority and planting edible crops, opportunities for green fuel production stole the world’s heart and wallet. Today, biofuel production is the most serious competitor to food production.
Since 2007, hundreds of land deals have been made and the ownership of millions of acres of farmland has been transferred. In a 2010 report, the World Bank identified 464 land acquisitions that were in various stages of development between October 2008 and August 2009. The actual quantity of land involved was only known for 203 of the 464 projects, yet it still totaled more than 140 million acres. To give some perspective, this acreage amount is more than the combined total of all corn and wheat plantations in the United States. Additionally, it is noteworthy to acknowledge that 21% of the 405 projects with known commodity information produced biofuels and another 21% was used for cash crops like timber and rubber. Only 37% of land was dedicated to the production of food crops. The usage of the remaining 21% was unknown.
As should be expected, roughly 70% of the world’s land grabs occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. Two-thirds of this land consists of just seven countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Sudan, and Zambia. Africa is a highly sought place for these transactions because of enormous flatlands availability as well as the shear cheapness of leases/purchases. For instance, an acre of land in Ethiopia can be leased for less than $1 a year. Countries with scarcer amounts of land have much more expensive prices.
The second most targeted region for land grabs is Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Latin America also possesses promise for land-hungry companies, particularly land in Brazil and Argentina. The Chinese corporation Chongqing Grain Group is currently harvesting 500,00 acres of soybeans in Brazil’s for export in China. Their arrangement allows 1.5 million tons of soybeans to be harvested per year.
The most land-grabby countries include Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, and India. Significant reasons for their interest in external production are population levels and land shortages. Populations in these areas have diminished their land and water resources, making international scouting necessary. The economies of these countries are also highly dependent upon imports. For instance, South Korea imports 70% of its grain, and it has become a major land investor in several countries.
China and India are also contenders in the land race, facing aquifer and cropland depletion due to growing populations, urbanization, and industrial development. China has recently become a leading grain importer and is also the top importer of soybeans. India has an ever-growing population to feed, with an estimated addition of 450 million people by 2050. With such huge numbers of people and such little space, India is unsurprisingly concerned about food security in future years and, thereby, interested in obtaining arable land elsewhere.
With food security fears and the availability of cheap land leases in the Southern Hemisphere, land grabbing is a practice that will likely continue in following years despite its ethical questionability. While there have been NGO outrages and global protests to land grabbing, like in India, something of this scale is not going to disappear quickly or easily. According to Lester R. Brown, the president of Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., “It is becoming increasingly clear that future food security is integral to the future of global security as it is more broadly defined. As land and water become scarce, as the earth’s temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. The conditions giving rise to this have been in the making for several decades, but the situation has come into sharp focus only in the last few years. The land acquisitions discussed here are an integral part of a global power struggle for control of the earth’s land and water resources.”
Check out Oxfam International’s video depicting the harsh reality that land grabs inflict on people throughout the world. It’s a current problem that definitely should not be ignored.