Innovations in Access to Land: Land Grab or Agricultural Investment?

By Ronit Ridberg

This is the first in a series of posts about the increasing prevalence of large-scale land acquisition, or “land grabs” in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Background: There has been a documented trend in recent years of foreign governments and private firms investing and acquiring large tracts of land in other countries for the purpose of agricultural production and export.  While the trend is global, increasingly the countries where these deals are taking place are in largely under or undeveloped regions in Asia and Africa.

Between 2006 and mid-2009 alone, there were a reported 37-49 million acres of farmland that were the subject of deals or proposed deals involving foreigners. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), cited in a 2009 article in The Economist, 37-49 million acres of farmland were the subject of deals or proposed deals involving foreigners, between 2006 and mid-2009 alone.

The investments are spurred by concerns over food security and growing populations, as well as the expanding market for bio-fuels. Governments and private investors alike are brokering deals for large swaths of fertile land, sometimes in exchange for promises of investments in infrastructure or education, and sometimes for what amounts to pennies.

In either case, land and water rights, food sovereignty and food security are all at stake.

There are two predominant schools of thought when it comes to these land deals: one is a “win-win” view, typically encouraged by the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, where poor countries receive some combination of money, infrastructure and resources, and investing countries increase their food security.

The second, usually supported by numerous farmers’ groups and non-profit organizations like La Via Campesina, the Oakland Institute, GRAIN and Food First, believe that these land grabs are exploitative and colonialist, kicking people off of their land and decreasing food security for “host” countries.

Documentation of this increasing phenomenon has been critical in understanding both the extent – and the consequences – of such investments:

  • The seminal report published by Spanish NGO GRAIN: Seized! The 2008 land grab for food and financial security, highlighted 100 cases of both government and private companies in food-importing countries like China, Japan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia making large deals for farms or otherwise non-cultivated land in countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. GRAIN has since kept an online archive, updated daily, of hundreds of articles from around the world reporting any such deal.
  • Finally, the World Bank itself has been promising to release its own report on more than 389 deals in 80 countries – the largest such report to date – but has delayed publication already three times in the last six months. GRAIN believes the delay is due to unfavorable findings.

Future posts in this series will identify specific deals and explore both sides of the argument in more depth. We’ll also be highlighting more on the topic of land acquisition in the upcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet. Andrew Rice, author of The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, will author a chapter addressing innovations that improve access to land.

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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