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A global land grab is underway

Today's food and financial crises have, in tandem, triggered a new global land grab. "Food insecure" governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snapping up farms all over the world to outsource their own food production and escape high market prices.

Private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, are eyeing overseas farms as an important new source of revenue. As a result of both trends, fertile agricultural land is being swiftly privatised and consolidated by foreign companies in some of the world's poorest and hungriest countries. A new report from the sustainable farming group GRAIN examines 100 cases of agricultural land grabbing – whether for food or simply for profit – that have exploded this year. The report says:

Given the current financial meltdown, the investment houses that manage workers’ pensions, private equity funds looking for a fast turnover, hedge funds driven off the now collapsed derivatives market, grain traders seeking new strategies for growth – are turning to land, for both food and fuel production, as a new source of profit. Land itself is not a typical investment for a lot of these transnational firms. Indeed, land is so fraught with political conflict that many countries don’t even allow foreigners to own it. And land doesn’t appreciate overnight, like pork bellies or gold.

To get a return, investors need to raise the productive capacities of the land – and sometimes even get their hands dirty actually running a farm. But the food and financial crises combined have turned agricultural land into a new strategic asset. In many places around the world, food prices are high and land prices are low. And most of the “solutions” to the food crisis talk about pumping more food out of the land we have. So there is clearly money to be made by getting control of the best soils, near available water supplies, as fast as possible.

Saudi Arabia and China are just two nations out buying farms, from Sudan to Cambodia, to satisfy their own food needs. In these cases, governments, sometimes through sovereign wealth funds, are negotiating rights to foreign land – whether by purchase, concession or lease – so that their corporations can come in and produce food to export back home.

In return, they are offering oil contracts, soft loans, infrastructure projects and development funds. The food-hungry land grabbers include China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Those giving up their land, in exchange for the oil deals or investments, include the Philippines, Mozambique, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sudan, Uganda, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe. The plan is to capitalise on low land costs and high food prices wherever fertile farmland is available, such as in Ukraine, China, Russia, Nigeria, Argentina, Brazil and Kazakhstan.

The money-hungry land grabbers are getting help from agencies like the World Bank, its International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, who are pressing target countries to change their laws and make stronger land ownership by foreigners possible. While political leaders and UN bodies are trying to "manage" the potential backlash, farmers' organisations, opposition parties, human rights groups and others are challenging and resisting these deals. But much more needs to be done to stop this massive sell-out of the very basis of food sovereignty.

4 November 2008

This is an edited version of the GRAIN launch of the report Seized: The 2008 landgrab for food and financial security.

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