Food follies

National Interest | 04.24.2009

by Ximena Ortiz

Pakistan’s government has recently announced a plan that could make a potentially dry and tense summer there even more difficult—granting al-Qaeda added recruitment appeal and undercutting a much-touted strategy by the Obama administration to improve standards of living.

The Federal Minister of Investment in Pakistan, Waqar Ahmed Khan, said this week that the government plans to sell or lease 1 million acres of farmland to foreign investors, primarily from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Although the news has yet to gain much coverage, if carried out it could punctuate growing unrest and frustration, given Pakistan’s limited amount of arable land and population of more than 170 million.

Land and food issues are at a boil in Pakistan and a number of other developing countries. The Taliban was able to take control in the Swat Valley in part by marshalling local militias that had become outraged at abuses by the richest landlords in the region, and the courts’ failure to mediate their grievances. Pakistani people have taken to the streets to protest soaring food prices.

If it is even feasible, the plan is therefore sheer folly. The fact that it has even been considered highlights the complexity of attempting to push forward U.S. goals in Pakistan, to say nothing of neighboring Afghanistan. A land sale or lease would likely enrich some officials but undermine an already precarious food-supply situation in Pakistan. According to David Isby, an author of several books on South Asia, it is highly probable that the land in question has already been purchased by government or military officials. “I would be surprised if that wasn’t the case,” he said, adding that President Zardari (when his wife was prime minister) was considered rapacious by Pakistani standards.

Such an opaque approach towards selling land in the developing world appears to coincide with a global trend of both cash shortfalls in many of the world’s breadbaskets and an acute need—in the Gulf, China and other areas—to import food. The supply and price of food is generating global concern, prompting G8 countries last weekend to hold an agricultural summit. The UN’s food security expert, Olivier de Schutter, called earlier this month for a “code of conduct” to regulate the purchase of farmland across Africa, Asia and Latin America, maintaining that such sales have often benefited some officials and companies but not the general population.

But even if the sale of land to foreign investors were squeaky clean in Pakistan, there are other problems with the proposition. To begin with, the land that would be available, and is being considered for sale, is mainly Baluchistan, which is mounting a full-scale insurrection against the government. In addition, there is limited water in Pakistan, so the irrigation of new farms owned by foreign investors could reduce water supplies for other farmers.

It is unclear how far along the land-sale plan has come, but Khan said the Pakistani government is now in talks with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Arab states, and “very soon we will be signing the deals.” He added, “For the first time I can say that whole government including the upper and the lower house and the opposition are on board for this project and are supporting the idea of improving Pakistan's economic situation.” Pakistan would raise a “special security force” to protect investors’ farmland, at a cost of $2 billion, which Khan said could be covered in part by foreign donor contributions. He added that the deals could not be infringed upon due to political changes—like, say, a coup. Islam Online reported Tuesday that a spokesman for United Arab Emirates said his country was interested in buying land in Pakistan and that talks with Pakistani officials “are underway.”

The Pakistani government’s land-sale concoction demonstrates the variety of challenges that the U.S. government faces in trying to advance its counterterror goals in South Asia. Just as the Obama administration is beginning to digest and react to preponderant developments, such as Islamabad’s virtual cessation of the Swat Valley to the Taliban, it is now hit by an unrelated, arbitrary and errant decision by government officials.

Pakistan is not a failed state, but the state is clearly receding. The Taliban has recently pushed into a district adjacent to Swat and the Punjab province is now seen at risk of Taliban infringement. The civilian government is already shaky—in part due to widespread frustration with the war in Afghanistan spilling over the border into Pakistan—and seems prepared to further delegitimize itself. NATO and America’s progress in Afghanistan depends on conditions in Pakistan, but the war in Afghanistan has severely destabilized Pakistan. In the end, the United States and its allies have greater, more pressing interests in Islamabad than they do in Kabul.

Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.
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