In recent times the practice of land grabbing (which is intrinsically tied with water grabbing) has increased.
As the name suggests, land grabbing occurs when corporations and other investors buy foreign land at cheap prices, sometimes for as little as 2.5 cents per hectare in South Sudan, as reported by Oxfam. Since most of these investors plan to use the land to grow agricultural products for food and fuel, they choose land with access to abundant sources of water.
This would be alright, if such corporations practiced sustainable and equitable land and water management, but more often than not, they don’t. More often than not, these corporations acquire these land (and water) deals through unjust means excluding the native inhabitants from negotiations, appealing to the greed of those who hold power, or not delivering on promises they made to the inhabitants.
Global Hunger Index and the Malen chiefdom of Sierra Leone’s land grab experience
In the 2012 edition of Concern Worldwide, Welthungerhilfe, and the International Food Policy Research Institute’s yearly Global Hunger Index, these organizations discuss various challenges to food security. One of the chapters describes how the farmers in the Malen chiefdom of Sierra Leone experienced all three of the aforementioned unjust means, when Socfin Agricultural Company Sierra Leone Ltd. leased 6,500 hectares of land in their area to build a plantation to grow oil palm and rubber. This company is a subsidiary of Socfin, an investment holding corporation based in Belgium with its fingers in pies ranging from plantations to finance to real estate and more. Socfin’s lease is slated to last 50 years, with the chance to be extended another 21 years.
Initially, Socfin, the Sierra Leonian government, and the Paramount Chief of the Malen chiefdom, Hon. B.V.S. Kebbie, promised the landowners that they would be compensated for their land, that the new plantation would create jobs, and that infrastructure would be built.
Land grabs as a serious threat to the local food security
However, they failed to consider the fact that most of the people didn’t actually want to give up their land. The grievances of the Malen landowners is published online. The documents describe how they were forced to agree to the land deal without being informed of all the details, how the Paramount Chief was bribed with a new vehicle, so he would make the landowners accept the deal, and how they were not adequately compensated for their lost land.
Now, since they physically can’t grow crops anymore, these formerly relatively independent people have to buy food and water, borrow money when their resources run out, and even pay officials at the Socfin plantation to employ them and their children. Organizations like Green Scenery are working to achieve justice for the people of Malen, but giant stakeholders like Socfin and corrupt government officials are usually not characterized by social responsibility.
Global Hunger Index Report, land grabs and the problem of water
The chapter on land grabs in the Global Hunger Index doesn’t go into much detail about how water is related to the practice, but a quick web search on water grabs reveals only little information. After corporations acquire their land deals, they need to use water. However, water doesn’t just bubble up where you need it to. It flows across borders, it is abundant in some places and scarce in others, and its course can be diverted. This is the beauty of water, and also the source of its complexity.
The problem is that companies, large farms and plantations set up shop where there is an ample supply of water, and use it without limitations. This depletes water stores in rivers, lakes, and aquifers, or diverts the course of water flow from those who were previously using it, threatening their livelihoods.
So, who gets the water?
The companies who’ve tapped into the biofuel goldmine and divert water to irrigate their plantations? Or the smallholders who have farmed the land for generations, and depend on it to survive? This predicament isn’t limited to developing countries. Stresses on water, fuel, and food are global, and so are the qualities of greed and opportunism. In the United States, farmers in Colorado who produce corn for ethanol production are using up the water in the Ogallala aquifer faster than it is naturally replenished, causing the water table to drop drastically. This subsequently depletes the river which flows from the aquifer, so that the farmers downstream, who use it to irrigate their crops, get a fraction of the water they used to use.
Water grabbing is a can of worms that has only recently been widely recognized. Of course it has its complexities. Countries in the Global South need foreign direct investment to spark economic and social development, but many times investors are only interested in making a killing in profits, and not in instituting fair practices which will improve the quality of life of the native inhabitants. At the same time, food security and independence of small landowners is also an important aspect of development and raising these people’s standards of living, as they are some of the most impoverished in the world. But the efforts made to help these people are literally squashed when the investing corporations send bulldozers to level their farms and plantations. Also, the distribution of water poses a problem when those upstream take too much water, depleting or diverting the supply before it can get to those who need it downstream.
However, everything we need to learn we learned in primary school, as the saying goes, and the lessons learned there apply here, no matter how complex the global situation is now. We need to share. We need to be fair. We need to care. The solution is so easy, it rhymes. It’s the implementation that’s the difficult part. In the face of that problematic imbalance of investment and independence, profit margins and the poorest people in the world, it’s up to the people who hold the cards, namely the corporate investors, other companies, and government officials, to remember that, and it’s up to us to make them remember.
This blog post was written by Sarah Epstein, who is currently interning with Progressio Ireland.