Ground Reality | Thursday, September 24, 2009
by Devinder Sharma
The 'Food Pirates' are fast expanding their network, their reach and their control over land. And it is happening fast in our own neighbourhood. For quite some time, word was going around that some companies from the Middle-east were trying to acquire land in Pakistan for producing food to be shipped back home. I had mentioned this in my article sometimes back (Outsourcing Food Production, in India Together, Nov 24, 2008, http://www.indiatogether.org/2008/nov/dsh-farmland.htm): In Pakistan, now in the throes of a food crisis, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani showed exuberance after his return from a state-visit to Saudi Arabia in mid-June. After all, in exchange for the desperately needed foreign investment, he had reportedly offered to sell thousands of hectares of productive farmlands. Meanwhile, Qatar is preparing to outsource its food production to Pakistan's Punjab, where nearly 25,000 villages are faced with displacement. Saudi Arabia is also planning to acquire a 1.6 million hectares food estate in Merauke in Indonesia to produce rice for export back home.
Now comes another report stating that Pakistan is proposing to lease 500,000 acres of land to Saudi Arabia. According to an article in The Hindu today (Planned farmland sale to Saudis gives Pakistan jitters by Nirupama Subramaniam, Sept 24, 2009): The transaction-in-the-making was first reported some three weeks ago from Dubai. Agriculture Secretary Tauqir Ahmed Faiq told reuters that the Pakistan government was in talks with the Saudis on the issue. A process was on, he said to identify leasable land in all four privinces of the country, and a small Saudi team is to visit Pakistan soon for negotiations.
This has raised a storm, as expected. I am aware that the corporate takeover of whatever remains of Pakistan's agriculture got an impetus during President Musharraf's regime. What is unfortunate is that Pakistan's agriculture remains in a dilapidated condition even after it imported 47,000 tonnes of improved seeds of the semi-dwarf varieties of wheat from Mexico in 1967. A year earlier, India had imported 18,000 tonnes of wheat seed from Mexico, and was able to launch Green Revolution.
Several analysts in Pakistan accept that if you have to understand how and why free markets can destroy agriculture, Pakistan is a classic case study. I agree completely, but the sad part is that the Indian policy-makers and planners are also busy following the Pakistan model of agriculture. In another 5-6 years, India will try to catch up with Pakistan, obviously in destroying its hard earned self-sufficiency in agriculture.
Anyway, coming back to the growing clout of the 'food pirates', you will be surprised to know that a hungry country like Ethiopia has already delineated around 2.7 million hectares of arable land to foreign companies. Out of this, 1.7 million hectares will be handed over before the coming harvest season. According to a news report: World’s top oil producing countries including United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and giant economies like India, China and South Korea are queuing in Addis Ababa to start big commercial farming to feed their own people. The competition among “land grabber” states has become fierce, with the overall number of companies applying for land in Ethiopia reaching 8,000. However, only 2,000 foreign companies, including medium size agricultural projects, have already secured farmland.
How can India remain out of the race. The report says: India leads the “land grabbing” race and so far Indian agricultural investment has been more than $2.5 billion. India’s total investment in Ethiopia was $300 million three years ago and has now grown to $ 4.3 billion. It is double the amount of Western aid offered to Ethiopia. Departing Indian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Gurjit Singh, believes Indian investment will reach eight to 10 billion dollars in the coming few years. “I don’t think this is the end of the story, but just the beginning,” he added.
And what about the poor and hungry in Ethiopia? Well, currently, more than 5.2 million people need emergency food aid from the international community in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Another eight million rural poor are being supported through a regular productive safety net aid scheme. Isn't this criminal? To lease out your own productive land to foreign companies, while millions go hungry? I wonder who will feed these hungry millions?
But then who is bothered? Not even the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the governing body of the 16 international agricultural research centres. First, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) talked of a code of conduct for the companies involved in land grab, and now we have the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) signing agreements with Saudi Arabia firms (who are on a land grabbing spree) to help them produce more rice. If you have been following the switch-over in the mandate of CGIAR, you shouldn't be surprised. CGIAR has for quite sometime abandoned its role of helping subsistence farmers. It has now taken on an advisory role for the corporates, and that includes Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.Well, what we are now witnessing is 'neo-colonism' in a new avtaar. The tragedy is that we are so engrossed with bailing out banks and insurance companies, and talking and talking about global warming that we don't think there is anything more dastardly happening to us. By the time we wake up to this reality, we will find that the land below our feet has already slipped away.