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Food crisis fuels new land grab

A new global land grab threatens not only the world's climate but the survival of some of the poorest people on the planet. From Brazil to Cuba, Mexico to Madagascar, governments and corporations are buying up land to bolster their own dwindling food and fuel resources.

Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority, for example, has a joint venture to clear up to 300,000 acres of Brazilian rainforest for palm oil plantations. The investment cost is just $800 million dollars. Calling for urgent action to halt the plunder, rainforest campaigners explain that:

Global ecological sustainability and local well-being depend critically upon ending all industrial development in the world's remaining old forests – including plantations, logging, mining and dams. The amount of primary and old growth forests that have been lost has already overshot the carrying capacity of Earth. Globally there are not enough old forests to maintain climatic and hydrological cycles, meet local forest dwellers' needs, and to maintain ecosystems and the biosphere in total.

Releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere, and cutting down crucial carbon sinks means faster climate change and more species extinction. But palm, soya and other cash crops grown for bio-diesel are claimed as climate change mitigation in the topsy turvy world of globalised capital. Every day some 30 square miles of virgin forest is cleared and the destruction is speeding up, in spite of all the pious statements of world governments.

The land grab is driven by growing food and fuel crises. China leases land in Cuba and Africa. Saudi Arabia holds the largest foreign ownership or control of African farmland in Sudan. Qatar has agricultural land in Indonesia, the Philippines, Bahrain, Kuwait and Burma. While a political crisis is leading to civil war in Pakistan, the government’s Investment Ministry has nevertheless put a million acres of farmland up for long-term investment or sale to foreign interests. All of this amounts to a new form of what might be called corporate imperialism, funded by sovereign wealth funds or corporations like Daewoo which are almost indistinguishable from state governments.

This is not empty land and not only forest is being cleared. People are being moved out of their homes to make way for foreign-owned agri-business. Species of all kinds are being burned up and sacrificed on the altar of profit.

Where they can, people are fighting back. The new government of Madagascar has repudiated a deal signed by the previous government, to lease 1.3 million hectares of land to Daewoo. Madagascans were so enraged by the plan they brought down the government earlier this year. In Kenya, protesters are trying to stop their government selling off their homes to Qatari interests.

As food and water shortages increase, powerful interests across the globe are declaring economic war on the poor. If need be they will take military action to ensure their survival. What they won’t do is voluntarily end the capitalist system of production and distribution which is at the heart of all our problems.

The planet grows enough calories to feed all its people already. But poor people can’t afford to buy food at prices that will deliver profits for investors. The crises of food, climate, water and fuel are in fact one major resource crisis driven by an unsustainable economic system. End that system, and we can begin to make a start on tackling these problems.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
14 May 2009

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