Pakistan: Highly questionable farmland deals

Business Recorder | 10 September 2009


In a display of rank short-sightedness, our government has decided to give away as much as seven million acres of our fertile farmlands to foreigners. A 'road show' was recently held in Dubai to evoke foreign interest. UAE, Saudi Arabia and China have responded with requests for acquiring land to grow crops and set up livestock farms.

The Minister of Investment Waqar Ahmad Khan tells us our agriculture sector would get the latest farm technology if the scheme is implemented, sounding as if his ministry has thought up a unique plan to modernise our agriculture sector in order to increase production. Food ministry officials are also selling it as a great plan for progress and development.

An exercise, they say, is under way to identify land for the purpose in Balochistan and Sindh, where vast tracts of land lie barren due to lack of necessary means. Farmland is also being earmarked in Punjab for Saudi Arabia, which wants some 500,000 acres. The new initiative, government officials say, will not only help in increasing agricultural production, but also provide job opportunities to the local people.

Those familiar with similar situations elsewhere warn that the activity may actually lead to small farmers being forced out of their land holdings through coercion or enticement. This would exacerbate social unrest. Besides, Balochistan is already in an angry mood over what it rightly regards the misuse of its resources by the Centre. Sale/lease of its land to outsiders may add to its list of anti-Centre grievances.

In any event, our future food security is at stake. In a just released Food Security Risk Index that covers 148 nations, Pakistan is ranked 11, and is listed among 'extreme risk' countries. Even Bangladesh is doing better than this country and, along with India, falls in the category of 'high risk' rather than 'extreme risk' nations. It takes 20th place, slightly ahead of India at number 25 in the order of poor performance.

Wealthier nations are buying farmlands in poor Asian and African countries to ensure their food security, and, in the case of the Middle Eastern nations, also because they are water-scarce and want to preserve their water resources. They are mindful of the fact that with the passage of time, increasing population pressures, climate change, and a growing trend toward bio-fuels will lead to food shortages and price hikes (These problems have already started to surface).

Having the financial means and the ability to see beyond the present, they seek to secure their future food requirements by buying or leasing vast tracts of farmlands in poor countries. According to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, since 2006, foreigners have either negotiated or are in the process of negotiating the use of 15 million to 20 million hectares of farmland in poor countries.

Saudis have leased land in Ethiopia to grow wheat, barley and rice. UAE has signed deals with Sudan for 400,000 hectares and South Korea for 690,000 hectares. Libya is leasing 100,000 hectares in Mali to produce rice. China has obtained 2.8 million hectares in Congo, and is also in talks with Zambia to grow biofuels on 2 million hectares.

If our government gets its way, we too are about to join those poor nations, handing our cultivable lands to foreigners without a care for our own needs. Of course, those who seek farmlands are better equipped to make efficient use of land. Productivity will certainly increase, but the produce - at least three-quarters of it - will not stay in the host country - something our investment and food ministries are not talking about.

Then, there is the issue of management in crisis situations. When the shortages of essential food commodities occur, as has been the case during the recent years, the government imposes an export ban. It will lose that option when foreign agriculture investors are given the right to export the produce from their farms.

This is not a hypothetical situation. We have the examples of Sudan and Ethiopia, which have faced famine and yet could not prevent foreign agri-investors from taking away the produce the local people needed so badly to stay alive. We are much better off, almost self-sufficient in food production. Still, shortages are not uncommon. Right now we are in the midst of lingering wheat and sugar crises, leading to public protests and riot-like situations at government sugar and flour distribution points.

Things are likely to get worse in the future, unless the government takes timely measures. What we need is to increase our own investments in the agri sector to raise productivity, rather than to allow other people to use our land resources to their benefit. Unfortunately, successive governments have been seeking the easy way out to raise revenue.

During the recent past, various public-owned entities were put on the auction block to generate money, and now the land asset is being offered to outsiders, mainly because the government is cash-strapped. Some have come out in support of the land deals, making the absurd argument that the land would still remain with us. Surely, it will remain here since humankind is yet to devise a way of transporting large tracts of land from one country to another.

The problem is that we will lose control. Of course, some regulatory framework will be put in place, but it will also include ceding of control over our land resource to foreigners for a yet-to-be-specified time period. It is not difficult to predict that the deals will span several generations. This government has no right to bargain away the food security of our future generations.

Notably, the acquisition of farmlands in other countries has become the subject of an international controversy, eliciting conditional support even from conservative opinion leaders. It is generally viewed, either as land grabbing or a new form of colonialism. Indeed, neo-colonialism it is, more exploitative than the multinationals using the cheap labour and resources of poor countries to expatriate profits to their home countries. They cheated on profits; the land grabbers will make off with food.

It is too serious an issue to be treated lightly. The government cannot decide on its own to put such an important resource as farmland on sale behind the people's back. It must present the land deal proposal before the Parliament and give profound reasons why it is incapable of developing the land resource itself, and increase productivity to meet our present and future requirements.

Some officials have been quoted as saying there is no constitutional bar on the government to do that. But then the framers of the Constitution could not have foreseen the handing of farmlands to foreigners. In any case, before making any firm commitments to outsiders, the government must put its proposal before the Parliament for a thorough debate and discussion.

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