Land investments are wholesale sell-outs for women farmers

Pambazuka | 2010-06-03 | Issue 484

Nidhi Tandon

Uncertainty around food and fuel supply globally has sparked investor interest in the acquisition of large parcels of productive land around the world, for commercial production or long-term investment, writes Nidhi Tandon. But these developments, which effectively take land away from local farmers and in many cases perpetuate ‘environmentally damaging farming methods’, threaten to have ‘serious negative impacts for small farmers, in particular women, who have no say in the political and trade decisions around their lands,’ Tandon warns.

The multi-fold hike in food and fuel prices in late 2007 came out of the volatility in the financial markets. In the first six months of 2008, mass riots over food shortages and unaffordable prices broke out across the world, from Senegal to Zimbabwe, from Haiti to Mexico, from Bangladesh to Yemen. As a result, economies large and small have become more alert to food security concerns.

Uncertainty around the future of food and fuel supply has propelled investors to invest in land. A growing number of investors and fund companies are acquiring large parcels of productive land in Africa, Latin America, Central and Southeast Asia for commercial production or long term investment – effectively taking land away from local farmers and in many cases, perpetuating environmentally damaging farming methods. This development threatens to have serious negative impacts for small farmers, in particular women, who have no say in the political and trade decisions around their lands.

‘Agriculture will be the next big booming sector. It will be farmers who will be driving the best cars in the world in the next 20–25 years instead of bankers and analysts’. (Jim Rogers)[2]

‘The sharp recent rise in global commodities prices, particularly in the energy and agricultural sectors, is … threatening the health of many millions in developing countries. There is also no doubt that these price rises have been accompanied by a corresponding rise in interest from institutional investors in commodities as an asset class. The value of commodity index investments has grown by about 1/3 since the beginning of the year, to more than $250 billion’. (Ben Steil, May 20, 2008)[3]

‘We can't reduce poverty if the majority of the landless can't afford to buy land.’ (Lumumba Odenda)[4]

A portrait of contradictions? The underlying assumption of the first quote (speculators’ hype) is that farmers will earn the kinds of profits that commodity speculators do. The reality presented in the last quote is that many who depend upon the land do not, and increasingly, cannot, own land. As long as financiers and traders profit from a system that pays out to them, they will continue to be the ones ‘driving the best cars’. With financiers and investors moving into long-term lease or outright purchase of enormous plots of land, peasants and small farmers are joining the ranks of the rural landless in ever-growing numbers. Globalisation impacts local land markets and land use; land transaction costs affect food prices; and the combined effect is particularly damaging to women who produce food and who put food on the table for their families.

This paper examines three issues:





  • What is attracting investors and market speculators into the farm and land sectors;
  • What is at stake for small farmers – and especially women farmers - and long term impacts for food production and food security; and
  • What action is needed to enable women to secure access to natural resource and land assets for current and future generations?


On 12 March 2010, Kooya Timan travelled 66km to the offices of the Ngorongoro NGO Network[5] in Arusha, and stayed in town overnight so as to take my phone interview for this article the following day. Kooya is a Maasai woman, a mother of five, born and raised in this area. The Maasai are a pastoralist community in northeast Tanzania who depend entirely on natural resources and their cattle for their livelihoods. Maasai women are among the poorest and most marginalised groups in Tanzanian society.

Kooya grows the staples of kidney beans (maharage) and maize (mahindi) to feed her family. At age 37 she says, (we are)… ‘living the hardest life we have ever lived. The land is poor quality. We lost so many cattle from viral infection[6] and starvation. The children are not going to school.’ Their few remaining cows and goats effectively put this family on a precarious edge. They are living on a starvation diet because the resources they depend upon are being eroded away. Kooya does not have enough land to grow any surplus for the local market. ‘Many women find themselves without homes, and are migrating to nearby towns to look for work’, she says.

Encroachment on pastoral lands is not a recent development; what is perhaps different is that it is becoming more intensified with globalisation, more difficult to track, and more discriminating against the rights of native peoples. In 1984, Tanganyika Breweries Ltd and its investor partners needed land to grow barley for beer; 10,000 hectares were put aside for the crop at that time. The land encroachment continues today in various guises, with further leasing to third parties for tourism development, conservation, gem mining, or farming. This kind of parcelling out of land among foreign investors and interests is common, and the village councils face a daunting task trying to reclaim lands, or negotiating use rights for local herders and farmers. The Maasai spiritual leaders – the Laibon – are almost entirely excluded from any engagement on behalf of their communities. And the women, needless to say, are voiceless in these matters.

This region is renowned for its natural beauty. Prime tourist sites include the Ngorongoro Crater, the Olduvai Gorge, and the active volcano in Mount Lengai. Artefacts found in the region indicate that pastoralists have grazed this area for 2,500 years or more. Samwel Nangiria – coordinator of the Ngoro Ngoro NGO network writes: ‘the community lands are being alienated by the government and big companies from Middle East and North America for ‘conservation’ purposes. For the last nine months we have had the toughest time trying to rescue the village land of eight villages that is being alienated by the government to give to the Royal Family from Dubai.’[7] He continues, ‘…in Loliondo, over 300 homes were burnt down, 1,800 people were made homeless and over 100,000 livestock were left without water and pasture. This happened between July–December 2009. One woman was reportedly raped by riot police who were deployed by the government to forcefully evict people from their lands. At the moment we are dealing with an American company alienating a big chunk of land for tourism’. In most cases, land orders are delivered directly from central government. ‘We will not be surprised if the next day we hear that the farm has been sold to a third party and the normal fracas ensues with villagers being evicted. In short, land value in key areas in Ngorongoro has appreciated astronomically of recent and their transferability (occurs) in a matter of seconds’.[8]

At the World Conservation Union Congress in November 2004, Martin Saning’o, a Maasai leader explained, ‘Our ways of farming pollinated diverse seed species and maintained corridors between ecosystems.’ Yet, in the interest of the new vogue of ‘biodiversity’, more than 100,000 Maasai pastoralists have been displaced from their traditional homelands.[9]

Kooya Timan has no doubt in that it is women and children who suffer the most. As a member of a pastoral women’s group, she informs me that each member will contribute TShs500 (US$1.50) towards a community meeting in April to send a delegation of women to present their concerns to the minister of natural resources and tourism. An earlier mission by the women to make a presentation to State House was blocked in December 2009. When asked what it is that the women really need, Kooya does not hesitate, ‘We need our voices to be heard at different levels, by our own government but also by networks of women around the world who will support us. We are being marginalised by our government but also by the men in our communities – and yet we women are the majority in our communities. We need a big movement to hold government accountable’.


Renewed interests in land and farm investments worldwide are a response in part to growing demand for food, water and fuel; in part to the opportunities provided by the speculative market and in part because countries are seeking to secure their own food sources to protect them against future market upswings in food price and availability. The pace of acquiring lands has quickened in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis; a global market in land and water rights is being created which has very little connection to domestic agricultural plans.

Private and institutional investors are seeking ways to diversify their asset bases, including outright purchases or long-term leasing of agricultural lands (the focus of this paper); more extensive speculation on food commodities[10]; and more systemic investments in the entire chain of the field-to-table business. In 2008, agricultural funds made 9.5 per cent return on investment, according to BarclayHedge, while almost every other investment lost money.[11] Financial speculation in commodity futures following the collapse of the financial derivatives markets fostered a ‘commodities super-cycle.’ In 2008 and 2009, speculators seeking quick returns transferred billions of dollars out of equities and mortgage bonds, and invested into food and raw materials. This heated-up speculation in commodities has a worldwide impact on food prices because of the globalised system of food production and the domino effects between different food sectors. The price impact on food importing citizens around the world has been devastating.

Bilateral and multilateral interests are also shifting attention to political and financial investment in agriculture. Examples include the 2008 International Finance Corporation (IFC) announcement that it would increase investments in ‘agribusiness development’ in Africa, South America and Russia because of new private sector interest in the food sector. Part of its spending will be to bring ‘under-utilized’ lands into production.[12] The term ‘under-utilised’ is often taken to mean small-scale sustenance farming that does not meet the ‘economies of scale’ models promoted by agri-business.

The Gates and Rockefeller foundations’ partnership with Monsanto to bring an Asian-type green revolution to the African continent will invest $US150 million into an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa project, which they regard as essential for food security. On its website, the Alliance describes itself as a ‘dynamic partnership working across the continent to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger. Alliance partnerships will focus on key aspects of African agriculture: from seeds, soil health and water to markets, agricultural education and policy.’[13]

Increased support for biotechnology is hidden in these developments. A 2009 report has as one of its main recommendations: ‘…international agricultural research projects with substantial payoffs for a large number of beneficiaries should be given investment priority, particularly genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that offer major potential for boosting agricultural yields and ‘climate proofing’ crops.’[14]

Josphat Ngonyo, with the Africa Network for Animal Welfare in Nairobi, compared the workings of the Alliance with that of Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of genetically modified seeds. ‘The way that the Gates and Rockefeller foundations have set up AGRA resembles a well-known Monsanto format. AGRA purports to finance and train small and medium sized agro-chemical dealerships, up to the village level, to make sure ‘improved seeds’ have a smooth channel to flow to all farmers across the continent. But Monsanto must police its technology contracts, so its transfer from Monsanto’s labs to farmers is best controlled if the financier has a hand on the seed supply chain in Africa.’ In short, this leads to corporate control of the seed supply, whether or not it is genetically engineered.[15]


Powerful coalitions of agro-industrial corporations, investment finance and bio-technology research are poised to spring new systems of large-scale controlled farming in countries that are unable to negotiate their own interests – and owning land and seed are the essential cornerstones to this business.

An UNCTAD (Nations Conference on Trade and Development) 2009 report[16] tracks a revival of old investors and an entry of new investors in agricultural production. Governments with a growing interest in investment in food production abroad are using Foreign Direct Investment, Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) and other contractual arrangements to finance investment. The new investors include those who have not traditionally invested overseas, or they may be cross-industry Trans National Companies such as Daewoo Logistics (Republic of Korea) and ExxonMobil (USA) or private equity funds (such as Palmer Capital/Bidwells from Germany/ UK and Gulamareh Fund, Malaysia). These large-scale farming practices will further erode women’s access to land and their use of land for local food growing and sourcing. And now with the attention to climate change politics, international policies systematically legitimise these processes and value propositions – often to the detriment of women.


While the emerging picture is still hazy and fragmented, stories from the field indicate that local people are losing access to the very resources upon which they depend for food, water and fuel security. Rural populations whose lives are inextricably linked with local ecosystems are most affected by how control over soil use is defined and realised. While farmers might still live on the land, they may no longer have a say on what is grown or for whom. When these kinds of decisions are taken away from the farmer, you are creating a farmer who is emotionally divorced from the care of the land. We have already witnessed the impact that this kind of ‘alienation’ has had on once-fertile lands across Africa and Asia.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) estimates that of the four billion poor and hungry, 50 per cent are small holder farmers, a majority of them women, 20 per cent are rural landless, 10 per cent depend on herding, fishing and forestry, and the remaining 20 per cent are urban. The FAO also suggests that women contribute 60 to 80 per cent of the labour used to produce food for household consumption and for sale in developing countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the broad popularisation of policies that speak to equitable development for both men and women, the reality is that women still systematically receive less extension training, access fewer loans for farm development, product development and marketing right across the board, and are generally voiceless relative to men. For example, of the 150 plus greenhouses that had been distributed among farmers in Dominica in 2009, only four went to women farmers.[17] What factors underpin the continued marginalisation of women’s interests in the farming sector?

COMMERCIAL FARMING IS PRIORITISED OVER LOCAL FOOD FARMING: Countries that depend upon agricultural income promote commercial (export) agriculture as a means to earning foreign exchange over smaller-scale farming systems that feed the country. This means that government supported initiatives, often dependent upon external funders, ignore or exclude small farmers who do not produce a high acreage of a single marketable crop or product. This also means that multi-cropping, companion cropping or other methods that do not meet this high acreage criteria are systematically ignored. Because many women farm smaller plots of land with a range of plants, they are de facto excluded from any national policy engagement.

TENURE INSECURITY LEADS TO LOWER PRODUCTIVITY: Africa is a food and commodity-producing continent. 70 per cent of Africans work in agriculture, which provides 50 to 70 per cent of Africa’s Gross Domestic Product – yet farm yields are only one-quarter of the global average. This is less a reflection on land productivity and more on the tenuous nature of land access and security of tenure. Research in Ghana shows that women’s land plot productivity was lower than that of men’s because of their higher level of tenure insecurity, making them less able to invest in land such as through fallowing[18] because they might risk losing the land.[19] Studies have also shown that where farmers ‘own’ the trees that they plant, they are more likely to take a long-term interest in planting more trees. In other words, there needs to be some assurance that the labour invested in the land will secure a return over several harvests.

FEMALE-HEADED HOUSEHOLDS ARE LESS SECURE: Add to this the fact that there has been a significant increase in the percentage of female-headed households (FHH) in recent years in many African countries. FHHs have a higher dependency ratio; have fewer assets and less access to resources; and tend to have a greater history of disruption.[20] Women in particular, whose formal rights to land are usually tentative to non-existent, with no legal or procedural mechanisms to protect their interests or to provide them with some channel of recourse or compensation, are destined to lose out completely when there is heightened competition for land. These gender differences become more acute when productive resources are eroded, making female-headed households the most vulnerable of the rural poor.

The trends in land investments exacerbate these underlying issues. With the emerging land investments a new set of challenges emerges for the woman farmer.

The larger the financial transactions, the more invisible are the concerns of the poor. Small farmers will often hear about decisions around land allocation and what is to be grown long after the deal is done. They have no seat at the negotiation table and are presented with a fait accompli. In other words, women stand to lose tenure and become contract farm labourers with no collateral.

Land deals are often multi-level agreements between government, banks and financial intermediaries with overlaying and complex levels of legalities over land ownership. As details of the agreements are not easily accessible, farmer associations face difficulties if they want to challenge the terms. The domestic legal rights of the poor do not guarantee that legal recourse might address their issues. On the contrary, international law will often prevail over domestic law – providing additional rights to foreign investors.

Monoculture or plantation farming that comes with large-scale mechanised agro-investment, further entrenches an agricultural system that is energy (fossil-fuel) heavy and degrades land and water. The system favours chemically-based farming which has already proven disastrous to the long term health of the biosphere (and a major contributor to GHGs). New technologies, GMO seeds and other related inputs are bundled together with financing which places governments and farmers alike in a cycle of debt and dependence on external inputs. This kind of farming is at odds with biological-based multi-crop local input farming that small farm management often entails.

Infrastructure built around export trade (large-scale irrigation and storage systems, rail, road and port construction) further entrenches the channels of agro-industrial export. Once again, this takes resources and attention away from women farmers whose markets are small and local and who need infrastructure to be built around local trade.

The traditional roles of women in plant genetic resource management (seed collection, selection and saving) will be silenced and devalued by the biotechnology advocacy of US development policy. The livelihood of seed-saving and production by women could be dismantled in the name of a misguided development agenda more focused on agribusiness incomes in the developed world than by enhancing the capacity for real ownership and control by women. The risks to farmers of fully adopting industrial agriculture in general and GM seeds in particular include:




  • transferring its food and farming decisions to global corporations
  • losing ecological and agricultural diversity as genetically modified crop varieties spread and driving small- and medium-scale family farmers off their land because they cannot afford the expensive inputs, including genetically modified seeds, that industrial agriculture demands.




Technological and financial solutions to these problems are secondary. The core solutions lie in building alliances, supporting dialogue and solidarity across local and international borders and enabling women to determine their choices, their priorities, their ways of ‘doing and being’ to hold local governments accountable.




Women want to influence the decisions that affect the lives of their families and communities, as well as their political and economic environments. In order to hold their representatives and governments accountable, women want to be better informed, and to have their own information, experiences and ideas valued and organised into voices for change. The ‘culture of silence’ where women will accept the decisions of male heads of household and male leaders, even if those decisions might have negative implications for them will wear down as women build their own support networks.


In particular, women need support to both articulate and take action to:






  • resist pressures to turn land and forests away from the food needs of the people towards the production of export crops or bio-fuels because of pressure to sustain a pattern of elite consumption that is clearly unsustainable
  • build solidarity to vigorously protect the provision of Global Public Goods (GPGs), but also vigorously resist pressure to open up National Public Goods (NPGs) to global corporations. The NPGs include, for example, provision of water for household use, energy and electricity for national enterprises, education, indigenous knowledge and cultural expressions, or access to land ‘conserved’ for tourism
  • build capacity to negotiate with technology and investment capital interests. Here the successes of grassroots organisations need to be drawn upon.


Peasant movements, organic farmer groups, and food movements are taking stands at local and international levels to retain or reclaim control over local production and consumption decisions. The Via Campesina[21] movement, Food Sovereignty movement and urban farming groups are all part of a groundswell demand for healthy local food in many countries – the movement is bringing some welcome critical attention to the global food industry. ‘When I choose to plant a particular bean, it might not be because it grows faster or because it gets me more in the market, I might decide to grow it because it tastes better – that is food sovereignty!’[22] The women war veterans in Zimbabwe have emerged as a food movement since they championed access to land with the aim of increasing food production in households.[23]




Diversity farming is the most modern ‘technology’ to achieve food security in a changing climate. It is an age-old insurance policy of farming communities to hedge their risks. Food security is going to mean secure land tenure for the producers, biodiversity of food production, and strong direct links between consumers and producers.


For over sixty years there has been a growth in the dominance of industrial agriculture in the world. That growth has meant concentration and consolidation of land and power into the hands of a few industrial giants, and monocultural production at scale has become the default farming method. It has led to the demise of thousands of small farmers and the loss of land ownership. The decline of small-holder agriculture is doomed to be repeated in the developing world if these land grabs continue and biotechnology advocacy gets more support.




Land reforms are again high on the international policy agenda, as evidenced by the recent establishment of the (High-Level) Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor.[24] Women possess just two per cent of the world’s land. That is the situation condemned by the FAO. In his report for the UNDP, ‘Empowering the poor through property rights’, Francis Cheneval attributes the situation to the legal discrimination against women in terms of ownership, the predominance of the patriarchal system and the mixing, operated under colonisation, between the dictates of tradition and of formal law. The Norwegian Network on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, based at the Centre for Environment and Development, University of Oslo has been advocating for rights based approaches to legal empowerment of women in titling and accessing land.


There are examples where women have taken deliberate measures to register land and secure the commons. A West Bengali group, SRREOSHI has made vested lands available to women’s groups, giving them due entitlement. Along with the entitlement, the land is cultivated by the groups to secure their nutrition and livelihood. This has relieved pressure to search for other livelihood income such as stone-crushing or street work and given them the confidence to participate more vocally in their communities.


In the Gambia, women are the traditional rice growers. Most of the lowland areas suitable for rice growing were owned by a small number of original founder-settlers. Not having access to enough labour they allowed poor landless farmers, mostly women, to work the land seasonally. Once the season was over, the founder-settlers took the land back. Through discussions with communities, a plan was formulated to devolve land ownership from the founder-settlers to those landless poor farmers willing to participate in its reclamation. From 1997 to 2005, the Lowlands Agricultural Development Programme (LADEP) worked as a catalyst to bring about this change. Individually-owned land was first devolved to the community, which distributed it equitably among those individuals, mainly women, participating in land reclamation. Some 22,000 women now own land definitively, and their children will be able to inherit it.[25]




This is an arena that requires urgent attention. Smallholder farmers and subsistence farmers stand to be cheated out of their remaining security base as the economic crisis sends investor mercenaries their way. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) represents smallholder farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers, and indigenous people across Africa. They urge African leaders to reject what they call ‘the corporate takeover of African land and food production systems.’ AFSA asserts that African governments are not doing enough to protect the food sovereignty, biodiversity, and livelihoods of its peoples.


As Kooya Timan stressed, ‘We need our voices to be heard at different levels, by our own government but also by networks of women around the world who will support us’.


We need to stand in solidarity with women who want to hold their governments accountable. Investors come and go. The land has to remain. What happens in ten to 15 years time when the investors cash out and leave? Who will be left to pick up the pieces?











[1] Ausverkauf in this context means Sell-Out.

[2] Co-founder of the Quantum Fund and creator of the Rogers International Commodity Index, Jim Rogers is an investor and financial commentator based in Singapore

[3] Benn Steil, director of international economics with the Council on Foreign Relations statement before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, May 20, 2008 [4] Coordinator, Kenya Land Alliance



[6] Wildebeest calves carry a virus in their nasal mucous that is fatal to domestic cattle – as the wildebeest population grows, the threat to domestic cattle also increases if the Maasai do not constantly move their herds away from Wildebeest grazing areas.

[7] Email communication and phone conversation with Samwel Nangiria March 12-15th 2010

[8] Samwel Nangiria, Gaspar Leboy, and William T. Olenasha Unpublished paper

[9] (May 2008) Resource Based Conflicts in Ngorongoro District: A Draft Report of a Documentation Exercise. Mark Dowie (introduction)

[10] The rocketing price of wheat, soybeans, sugar, coffee - is a direct result of debt defaults that have caused financial panic in the west and encouraged investors to seek ‘stores of value’. These range from gold and oil at one end to corn, cocoa and cattle at the other; speculators are even placing bets on water prices.

[11] David Walker (19 January 2009) Agricultural Funds reap a rich Harvest in The Wealth Bulletin (accessed December 26th)

[12] In 2008, the IFC spent 1.4 billion dollars in the agribusiness supply chain, of which 900 million dollars went directly to agribusiness firms.


[14] International Institute for Sustainable Development: How Might Agriculture Develop in Southern Africa: Making Sense of Complexity

[15] In 2008, the number of farmers using GM crops increased by 1.3million to 13.3 million – and from 6 countries in 1996 to 25 in 2008

[16] UNCTAD World Investment Report

[17] NID training workshop, Dominica 2009.

[18] Fallowing

[19] Goldstein, M., and C. Udry. 2005. Landrights and Agricultural Investment in Ghana. Working papers 929. Economic Growth Centre, Yale University

[20] IFAD, 1999. Assessment of Rural Poverty in West and Central Africa. Rome. August. IFAD. 1999. Human Enterprise Ecology: Supporting the Livelihoods of the Rural Poor in East and Southern Africa, Main Report and Working Paper No. 2. Rome. August.

[21] Via Campesina describes itself as 'an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities'. It was founded in 1992 and was originally based in Belgium but now has its headquarters in Indonesia.

[22] Farmer woman from Honduras – interview November 2009

[23] (Mutopo P, Field data, Mwenezi September 2009).


[25] See (










  • GRAIN (2008) Seized: The 2008 landgrab for food and financial security.
  • James, Clive (2008) ‘Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008’ ISAAA Brief, No. 39. Ithaca, N.Y.: ISAAA
  • Dowie, Mark (2009) Conservation Refugees: the hundred year conflict between global conservation and native peoples. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Draper, Peter, Sheila Kiratu and Tanja Hichert (2009) International Institute for Sustainable Development: How Might Agriculture Develop in Southern Africa: Making Sense of Complexity
  • Mutopo, P, (forthcoming) Women`s Access to Land and Livelihoods after Fast Track Land Reform in Mwenezi District, Zimbabwe
  • Tandon, Nidhi (2007) Biopolitics, climate change and water security: impact, vulnerability and adaptation issues for women
  • Von Braun, J. (2010) ‘Food and financial crises: Implications for agriculture and the poor.’ IFPRI brief prepared for the CGIAR Annual General Meeting, Maputo, Mozambique.
  • Send a letter calling on the financial backers of Agilis Partners to stop the land grabs and human rights violations against the Kiryandongo community in Uganda
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