Rethinking corporate farming

Daily Times (Pakistan) | Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Syed Mohammad Ali

Our government is planning to offer Arab investors legislative cover to protect them from changes in the government, but hardly any attention has yet been given to the need for protecting poor labourers who will be working for Arab corporate agriculture companies

The rural landscape in our country is prone to numerous forms of deprivations. Some of these manifest themselves in stark forms of gender discrimination. Others are more economic in nature and become visible through multiple forms of exploitation perpetuated by those with access to large amounts of land, against those who toil on this land.

Just last month, an old peasant from Sanghar district in Sindh, who along with others had been observing a hunger strike in protest against the injustices of an influential landlord and politician, died outside the Karachi Press Club. This sudden death during a staged sit-in prompted several serving ministers to publicly express their grievance with the bereaved family. The provincial government has also assured that a judicial inquiry will be ordered into the matter, since the President of Sindh High Court Bar Association has offered free legal advice to the bereaved villagers.

Although the final outcome of the promised inquiry is yet unknown, this encouraging trend of judicial activism subsequent to the restoration of the Chief Justice builds on an earlier precedent set by the Lahore High Court ruling which had favoured a poor peasant in an Okara land dispute case registered by a retired brigadier.

The role of the Labour Party Pakistan and several NGO activists in providing support to the villagers from Sanghar is also noteworthy. This is the kind of vigilance and institutional commitment is needed to dispel the ceaseless oppression of landless wage earners and sharecroppers by landlords across our country.

Unfortunately, the plight of the villagers from Sanghar is hardly unique. Instances of entire families having been subjugated to bonded labour across interior Sindh provide ample testimony to this fact. Yet despite the blatant forms of exploitation that keep occurring due to skewed land holding patterns in our rural areas, it was disappointing that major political parties did not squarely take up the issue of land reforms in their manifestoes prior to the 2008 general elections. Conversely, instead of trying to take concrete steps to empower the rural poor, the current government is now trying to lease or sell large tracts of agricultural land to Arab states, in lieu of attracting foreign investment to Pakistan.

The extraordinary increase in global prices of staple commodities like wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and barley seems to have led many richer states to begin growing these crops on their own instead of continuing to import them, even if this production takes place on land located in other countries. Several state-sponsored companies from South Korea, Japan, and the Gulf states have acquired farmland in Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Mozambique, Madagascar, Uganda, Ethiopia, Brazil, and South and Central Asia.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also targeted Pakistan to begin growing crops for themselves. Pakistan’s Ministry of Investment has also confirmed its intent to offer Arab countries one million acres for cultivation. According to recent newspaper reports, some private companies on behalf of the UAE government have already purchased thousands of acres in Balochistan near Mirani Dam.

Apparently, the UAE is also in negotiation with the Sindh government to acquire farmland in Shikarpur, Larkana and Sukker, and with the Punjab government for acquiring lands around Mianwali, Sargodha , Khushab, Jhang and Faisalabad.

Government officials claim that the land being offered to the Arab nations is not under cultivation, therefore there is no threat of displacement of indigenous communities, or erosion of local food sovereignty. However, the environmental hazards posed due to deforestation, land degradation and increased water consumption also need to be taken into account before making such confident claims.

In particular, the repercussions of corporate farming can be very dangerous for Pakistan in the context of our water scarcity. Given that some 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawn for human use goes into agriculture, it may be prudent for Arab and other water scarce states to invest in agriculture in other countries so that their existing water sources are not placed under increased pressure. The problem of course is that countries like Pakistan, which are keen to sell them the natural resources required to do so, are also facing acute water scarcity problems, and placing the burden of providing water to corporate farms will only make matters worse.

Yet, in its haste to reap short-term financial gains and to replenish its dwindling foreign exchange reserves, the government of Pakistan seems to be ceding control over its cultivable lands. Moreover, the proposed incentive measures being devised to encourage this much-needed foreign investment raise a number of questions.

For instance, there is meant to be no ceiling custom duty and sales tax on import of agricultural machinery and equipment. While proponents have argued that this measure is being taken to enable diffusion of technology, the proposed remittance of all capital and profits from these ventures seems to undermine this proclaimed technological diffusion benefit. Besides, the utility of capital-intensive technology for poorer farmers who rely on labour intensive farming techniques remains minimal at best.

Furthermore, our government is planning to offer Arab investors legislative cover to protect them from changes in the government, but hardly any attention has yet been given to the need for protecting poor labourers who will be working for Arab corporate agriculture companies. More concerned with attracting the investment, a proposal for developing a new security force of 100,000 men has been put forth to protect the international agricultural investment.

Some human rights activists fear that this force could also be used to remove local communities from their lands at a later stage of expansion, especially since no ceiling has been placed on the amount of land that may be bought by multinationals. An even more threatening possibility, identified by the Campaign for Abolition of Third World Debt in Pakistan, is how introducing corporate farming will encourage other big landlords to convert their lands into corporate farms, potentially immunising themselves from future agrarian reforms.

Before signing memoranda of understanding with potential Arab investors, some of the terms of reference pertaining to the above mentioned issues do require a rethink, so that immediate foreign investment inflows do not undermine the worthier goal of sustainable and equitable agricultural development, and securing national food sovereignty.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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