I’m so glad authors like Fred Pearce are paying attention. I’d never heard of Pearce until his book, The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, jumped from the library shelf into my hands. Published in 2014, the book reads like a world-wide travelogue, except the sights are disheartening. Until the end, it made me wonder if every plot of arable soil on the planet has been razed, plowed under, polluted, and subjected to rampant, monolithic, mechanized agriculture for export.
The Land Grabbers premise is that “soaring grain prices and fears about future food supplies are triggering a global land grab.” The super-rich, would-be rich, and governments are scouring the world looking for productive investments; and land—especially arable land—reigns supreme.
In chapter after chapter, the reader learns of how formerly communal land has been privatized, with drastic changes in ecosystems and eviction or undermining of subsistence-level, indigenous people. In the first chapter, we learn about government “villagization” in Ethiopia, the collecting of dispersed populations like the farmer/fisher Anuaks and the livestock herding Nuer into state-designated villages, ostensibly to provide better services, like schools, hospitals, and water wells. But locals claim the government is stealing their traditional lands to turn over to foreign agribusiness.
The second chapter takes the reader to the Chicago Board of Trade, the home of commodity trading. We learn commodity speculation in 2008 may have contributed to the sharp spike in worldwide food prices that year. The food price bubble was first noticed in early 2007 in Mexico, where the cost of tortillas quadrupled in two months. Subsequent months brought food riots across North and West Africa. In Egypt, the world’s largest food importer, bread prices tripled.
Pearce says grain shortages could not be blamed, since grain production was up five percent that year. However, at least one-third of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock. Also, 2007 saw a boom in the biofuels industry, and was the year the ethanol mandate was passed in the United States. The US earmarked half of its corn for ethanol, diverting surpluses from export markets.
In Saudi Arabia, fear of dependency on food imports prompted billionaires to pump water from a mile beneath the desert to irrigate wheat and grazing grasses for dairy cattle. Within a few years it had depleted four-fifths of its underground water reservoir–formerly the size of Lake Erie–and realized this tactic was unsustainable. It turned to acquiring large tracts of land in foreign countries, especially impoverished Muslim countries in Asia and Africa. Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries are also acquiring foreign farmland or concessions to produce food for their people.
The book repeats the story of dispossession in South Sudan and Kenya. In South Sudan the new government has promised vast tracts to Arab interests, with land rights signed over by questionable spokesmen for the people, without surveys or other demarcations showing where the properties begin and end. Tradition has it that whole communities must participate in communal land decisions, but purchasers find ways around this. In several cases, the land has been leased out with great promises of agricultural development, but nothing has been done on the ground.
There’s the story of the American Christian evangelist who made his money running private prisons in the US. He has leased 17,050 acres in the Yala swamp in Kenya. It drains into Lake Victoria. Calvin Burgess claims he has permission to drain the swamp, clear the papyrus and cultivate, primarily, rice for export. He sees his huge agribusiness as a means to bring Christianity to the poor, as well as drag them out of poverty. His farm is named “Dominion.”
Locals tell a different story. Before Burgess, everyone had cattle and used the swamp, taking papyrus as needed to make mats, baskets, roof thatch, and other useful items. Now, because Burgess has raised a weir several feet, the swamp overflows and floods regularly, destroying locals’ crops and bringing crocodiles and hippos to their front doors.
Pearce describes the general political scenes in several African counties, including Liberia. Liberia had recently emerged from a 14-year civil war. I read about the Firestone rubber “fiefdom” in Liberia since 1926. “International law” favors the investors; and investor claims supersede individuals, communities, and countries. I have to wonder who is the arbitrator of “international law.” UN “peace keepers” dominate in Liberia.
Pearce writes a lot about the palm oil industry, which has grown exponentially over the years. It started back in the early 1900s, with the tyrannical King of Belgium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but later came under the control of the Lever Brothers, and then Unilever.
Also in Africa, the grabbers have claimed large concessions to create hunting reserves, “eco-tourism,” including safaris, and conservation areas that have squeezed indigenous Massai tribes and run them off traditional lands. This in Tanzania, primarily, but also in Kenya. I guess they have had domestic cattle for centuries, in concert with wildlife, yet moderns believe the two are incompatible and want to remove the people and their cattle from their traditional lands.
We learn about the Inner Niger Delta, in Mali, which is being dried out by irrigation rights upstream. Here four foreign concessions have been given enormous prior claims on Niger water, complete with canals. Two are for sugar cane—British and Chinese—which is a huge water hog; one is a US concession for rice; and the fourth, possibly the largest, is for food for Libya.
In the Ukraine, the story is similar to the others. Individuals form companies, get investors, buy or lease large tracts of land with grand plans to grow this or that. In the Ukraine or Russia, a number of formerly collective farms have been abandoned. There are many household farms, but the people don’t have the money to grow for more than their own needs.
The cerrado in Brazil, and the chaco in Paraguay both hosted indigenous tribes. Now the tribes have been squeezed, killed, compromised, or absorbed, and the foreign investor mono-agriculturalists are encroaching ever closer, destroying biodiversity, rendering many species extinct, obliterating and polluting habitat.
The conservationists are either weak, compromised, or circumvented. In South America, the main industries are cattle ranching, sugar for ethanol, and soy, but also other grains like corn and wheat. Rubber.
In Sumatra and Papua, New Guinea thousands of acres of rain forest and peat bogs have been destroyed, for two Chinese-owned paper mills. Once again, locals who depended on the forest for rattan and rubber, as well as fishing and shrimping have been displaced, in some cases violently, and their water polluted. Their government has favored foreign investors over them, despite presumed legal protections. The IMF was happy to advise the Sumatra government to give away even more forestry concessions to bail out the Chinese paper mills when there was a recession in Asia.
Overall, the book gives an impression of the sheer size of the earth, and its many and varied lands. But the land grabber strategy seems similar the world over. The international concerns are deeply intermingled, with lots of names, re-names, countries, and corporations, hedge funds, pension funds, and university endowments involved. Tax havens. Companies awash in subsidiaries, controlled by individuals and families, with holdings in multiple countries, and assisted by weak or corrupt governments, rape the land, displace subsistence locals–who generally have depended on communal sharing of resources, like forests and rivers–turn them against each other and the police/government against them. They bring in bulldozers and chain saws to replace rotation farming and biodiversity with mono-agriculture for export.
It’s enough to make me a Communist, if it would mean a return to communal land holdings. Reading The Land Grabbers reveals the de facto pervasiveness of communism, in the shared, or communal land sense. It is the undercurrent that modern property-owning society is built on. That land grabs are happening all over the world to so many indigenous and until now isolated people shows how the perpetrators have depended on the isolation to pull the same stunt over and over.
I liked the way The Land Grabbers ended. Pearce claims most of the world’s food is still produced by smallholderrs. Most land is still held and used in common. In Africa a half-billion smallholders produce 90 percent of the food. Pearce writes that in India large dairy cooperatives have propelled the country from 78th to first in the world in milk production. The coop provides for daily milk pickups from the members.
Bottom line is all is not lost. Pearce says that despite myth, smallholders take better care of their ecosystems than large mechanized industry. They farm every corner of their small spaces, use crop rotation, animal manure for fertilizer, expand and contract grazing and growing spaces depending on need. They grow diverse crops and have animals, like cows, goats, and chickens. The idea of “tragedy of the commons” doesn’t hold. Without written rules, communal holders manage to work out among themselves fair balances so that land does not become over-grazed or reduced to desert.
After reading The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, I believe more strongly than ever that no one owns the earth. The earth owns us.