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Land Grabs Squeeze Rural Poor Worldwide

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Human Wrongs Watch By Jomo Kwame Sundaram

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Jun 17 2024 (IPS)* Since 2008, farmland acquisitions have doubled prices worldwide, squeezing family farmers and other poor rural communities. Such land grabs are worsening inequality, poverty, and food insecurity.

Squeezing land and farmers
A new IPES-Food report highlights land grabs (including for ostensibly ‘green’ purposes), the financial means used, and some significant implications.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Powerful governments, financiers, speculators, and agribusinesses are opportunistically gaining control of more cultivable land.

The report notes the 2007-08 food price spike and financial crash catalysed more land acquisitions.

Quantitative easing and financialization after the 2008 global financial crisis enabled even more land grabs. Investors, agri-food companies, and even sovereign wealth funds have obtained farmland worldwide.

Agribusinesses and other investors want land to make more profits, urging governments to enable takeovers. Cultivable land is being used for cash crops, natural resource extraction, mining, real property and infrastructure development, and ‘green’ projects, including biofuels.

The land squeeze has developed in novel ways, with most large-scale deals diverting farmland from food production. Instead, environmentally damaging ‘industrial agriculture’ has spread, worsening rural poverty and outmigration.

The new land rush has displaced small-scale farmers, indigenous peoples, pastoralists, and rural communities or otherwise eroded their access to land. It has worsened rural poverty, food insecurity, and land inequality. Marginalising local land users has made family farming less viable.

‘Green grabs’ involve governments and corporations taking land for dubious large-scale tree planting, biodiversity offsets, carbon sequestration, conservation, biofuels, and ‘green hydrogen’ projects. Water and other resource demands also threaten food production.

The land rush has slowed recently, but underlying pressures and trends continue. The pandemic, Ukraine and Gaza wars, and government and market responses have revived alarmist ‘food shortage’ narratives, justifying more grabs.

Investing in dispossession
Agricultural investments rose tenfold during 2005-18. By 2023, 960 investment funds specialising in food and farming assets had properties worth over $150 billion.

Nearly 45% of all farmland investments in 2018, worth $15 billion, were by pension funds and insurance companies. During 2005-17, pension, insurance and endowment funds invested $45 billion in farmland.

Unsurprisingly, land prices have risen continuously for two decades in North America and three in Canada. During 2008-22, land prices nearly doubled worldwide, even tripling in Central and Eastern Europe!

Pension funds and other private investments doubled UK farmland prices during 2010-15. More recently, investments in US farmland have doubled since the pandemic!

The largest one per cent of farms worldwide now have 70% of farmland. In Latin America, 55% of farms only have 3% of farmland!

More than half the farmland thus obtained is for water-demanding crop production. While a fifth of large-scale land deals claim to be ‘green’, 87% are in areas of high biodiversity!

Mining accounted for 14% of large-scale land deals over the past decade.
Growing demand for rare earths and other critical minerals is driving mining on former farmland, worsening environmental degradation and conflicts.

Instead of protecting national, social or community interests, regulations seem to protect the culprits. The terms of such deals often make things worse. Thus, foreign corporations successfully sued the Colombian government for trying to stop their large-scale mining project.

Green land grabs
Some governments and big businesses advocate compliance with environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. They invoke sustainability, including climate goals, to justify elitist conservation and carbon offset schemes.

Over half of government carbon removal pledges involve the land of small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples. ‘Green grabs’ – for carbon offsets, biodiversity, conservation and biofuel projects – account for a fifth of large-scale land deals.

Government pledges to absorb carbon dioxide into the land surface commit almost 1.2 billion hectares, equivalent to the world’s cropland area! Despite modest climate benefits, problematic carbon offset markets are expected to quadruple over the next seven years, driving even more land grabs.

Carbon offset and biodiversity markets drive such transactions, drawing major polluters into land markets. Oil giant Shell alone has committed over $450 million for offset projects.

African land grabbed
The land squeeze is worldwide, affecting various places differently. Land grabs have significantly affected Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, while land inequality grows in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Asia.

Susan Chomba and Million Belay found almost a thousand large-scale land deals in Africa since 2000. Mozambique had 110 such deals, followed by Ethiopia, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Some 25 million hectares involve Blue Carbon, run by a Dubai royal. The company has bought rights to forests and farmland to sell carbon offsets. The land is from five Anglophone African governments, involving a fifth of Zimbabwe, a tenth of Liberia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Large-scale land deals put indigenous and pastoralist communities at greater risk. In Ethiopia, Ghana, and elsewhere, land sales have forced farmers to work on smaller fragmented plots, become wage labourers, or migrate, undermining their ability to feed themselves, their communities and others.

African smallholders, pastoralists, and indigenous communities have long protected their land and biodiversity. However, most now lack the rights and means to do so more effectively, let alone feed Africa and improve climate action. Thus, the climate crisis is being used against rural African communities.


2024 Human Wrongs Watch


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