From public good to private profit: The shifting discourse on land grabbing
Global Policy Forum | September 2011

The large-scale acquisition of land by foreign governments, hedge funds and private investors, commonly referred to as “land grabbing,” has accelerated exponentially in recent years. In a time of economic and environmental insecurity, investors view farmland as a tradable asset with the potential to deliver significant profits. Proponents of land grabs, including the World Bank and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), claim land deals are win-win” situations where investors gain financially and host countries develop their economies and infrastructure to increase food security. In reality, land investments displace rural populations, often without any notice, and diminish their access to land, jobs, and food.

Trends in Land Grabbing
Land grabbing practices have evolved in the last decade. Today, the practice is not just limited to governments buying up land as part of their national food security strategy. Private investors, including Heads of State Muammar Gaddafi and Malian President Amadou Toumari Toure, are buying up land in Africa for personal gain. Harvard and Vanderbilt, two well-known American universities, have also been suspected of buying and leasing vast tracts of African farmland.
Many developing countries welcome agribusiness investments and offer fertile land to foreign investors at very low costs. The World Bank promotes these policies and provides technical assistance to governments to spur direct investment in agriculture in developing countries. This effectively incentivizes a trend that threatens global food security and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers. As of February 2011, at least 115 million acres of land were leased to foreign investors worldwide. Even in the newly independent state of South Sudan, as much as 9% of the land is said to be owned by foreign firms.
Land grabbing is no longer restricted to the developing countries in the South and has started to occur in the Global North. In the US, there is a new class of “gentlemen farmers” who are “buying wheat fields in Kansas and acres of soybeans in Indiana.” Investors unhappy with current investment options, such as risky stocks and bonds, have found that land is cheap, reliable, and increasingly valuable. This trend is becoming increasingly common-place: 25% of buyers in Iowaare investors.
Shifting Discourse
In recent years, the discourse around land grabbing has shifted dramatically. At first, land grabbing was marketed as a “responsible agricultural investment”—good for both farmers and investors. Today, land grabbing no longer holds the pretense of being an accountable practice and instead is branded as a positive investment for land buyers only.
Land-buyers understand these benefits and are purposefully vague when discussing their land deals. For example, CalyxAgro, a World Bank backed firm, advertises its services as “identifying, acquiring, transforming and operating agricultural land in Latin America.” This leaves the nature of “transformation” hidden and conceals the real motive behind the land buyer’s interest in the investment.
Although firms deny claims that small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples are forcibly moved from their villages, studies have found that land grabbing deprives pastoralists and peasants access to their land. A 2008 joint report by the FAO and the International Institute for Environment and Development found that in the Kisarawe district of Tanzania, a British firm acquired 9,000 hectares of land and “cleared 11 villages, which, according to the 2002 population census, were home to 11, 277 people.”
Proponents of land grabs claim that acquiring foreign land prompts investment in local infrastructure and benefits farmers; however, foreign direct investments in agriculture do not contribute to rural development. Those supposedly “benefitting” from land deals have called for an end to land grabbing. On June 22, 2011, a group of more than 500 NGOs delivered a petition to G20 leaders asking for a halt to land grabs. With food prices skyrocketing and wheat trading at record prices, institutions such as the World Bank must stop molding international food policy and promoting land deals. If left unchallenged, the consequences of land grabbing will be devastating.
To view more of Global Policy Forum's work on Land Ownership & Hunger, click here.

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