By Theodora Tsentas
Four months ago I travelled to the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines to research agriculture's new land grab phenomenon as part of my postgraduate research. Having read extensively on the issue from different media, governmental, and non-governmental reports, I expected my findings to be a blend of arguments from both sides of the debate. However, through the course of my fieldwork and subsequent academic research, I concluded that there was a strong case to be made against the proposition of a "win-win" situation for every stakeholder.
Land grabbing is a term that has, arguably, been overused by the media to bring attention to the rise in interest of resource-poor countries - such as those belonging to the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) - to lease or buy land in other nations whose natural resources are deemed abundant. In brief, the market for arable land has expanded so drastically - as to involve deals of up to 1.2 and 1.3 million hectares - due to the food insecurity felt by governments whose countries are heavily dependent on importing the bulk of their food produce. As such, the outsourcing of agriculture, which aims to cultivate crops and livestock abroad destined for consumption back home, is viewed as a loophole by which resource-poor wealthy governments can feed their population outside of unpredictable and undesirable market fluctuations.
The connotation of "land grabbing" is, in essence, the unlawful dispossession of another person's land - an act akin to colonialism but, also used intermittently to describe the dislocation of a person or culture from their land by governments and/or corporations. For example, in her book, The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein refers to the tourist industry's usurpation of land belonging to locals in countries which were hit by the 2004 tsunami as a land grab.
Consequently, the buying or leasing of land for agricultural purposes cannot be accurately categorised as "land grabbing" because it is a deal mutually-struck between two governments, or a government and members of the private sector. However, where the local population (especially that of the host country) is concerned these "civilized" deals are very much related to the original significance of land grabbing.
Rewinding to four months back. I'm sitting opposite four gentlemen in a conference room with polished wooden furniture, kitsch Arabic decor, and a temperate climate removed from the dusty heat of Abu Dhabi. One of the gentlemen is the CEO of the investment company I came to interview, the other three are his consultants. The reason for this disproportionate welcome, I later learn, is attributed to a miscommunication on the part of my intermediary, who informed the company that I was a potential client - not a twenty-four year old research student.
Dressed in my most effective non-student attire, I venture to ask these gentlemen what they deem of the term "land-grabbing", which has been adopted to describe the investments their company is currently involved in. I am told that the use of the term is short-sighted, that there is no intention to grab anybody's land, and that the negotiations are based on fair deals that reach beyond a business transaction to social responsibility. I respectfully refrain from pointing out that the missing term in "corporate social responsibility" is what designates it very much a part of business.
In truth, these gentlemen appear trustworthy and hardly of the malignant sort I tend to imagine sitting in a conference room as part of the main entourage of a corporation. When the term "win-win" is employed to describe how mutually successful these deals are constructed to be, I detect no inkling of dishonesty. My interviewees all seem to genuinely believe that by leasing or buying land abroad their investment will not only be beneficial to themselves and their stockholders, but will equally benefit the host country; which, it is presumed, will gain an upgrade in its infrastructure, a transfer of new technology, capital, and new school and hospital buildings.
If I had stopped there, I might have been convinced that agricultural outsourcing is a good idea, even a great one. However, having persevered and conducted research in the Philippines, one of the most sought host countries, I soon came to the conclusion that the words spoken and actions taken by a handful of highly-educated businessmen in an office in Abu Dhabi are far removed from the needs and wants of those affected.
Like most countries in South-East Asia, the Philippines' population is ridden with drastic inequalities. The image of the high-rise buildings housing banks, shopping malls, and offices surrounded by slums is, unfortunately, a reality. One which is most acutely exemplified by Manila's banking district, Makati City, and Forbes' Park, a.k.a Millionaire's Row. The well-quoted equation that 2% of the Filipino population controls almost all of the country's arable land is rendered even more outstanding when contrasted to the Philippines' continuing history of land reform, whereby the majority of peasants are landless, still working beneath the tenancy of their hacienderos or landlords.
Approximately a week or two after my meeting with the Abu-Dhabi based investment company, I find myself posing the same question to an attorney who heads a farmer-support organisation in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental. He laughs wholeheartedly at the investor's and government's perspective of a win-win formula, regarding the prospect of leasing land to foreigners for a period of half a century - for some an entire lifetime - as somewhat of a joke. Composing himself, he reverts to a more serious tone, informing me that there is definitely no such thing as a win-win situation on a disadvantaged playing field.
Like the mining industry, where foreign mining multinationals have been given leave by the Filipino government to mine the minerals they want and expatriate the profits back to their own country, the leasing of land for agricultural purposes will have much the same effect. Leaving aside the injustice inflicted upon this generation of farmers who have fought hard and senselessly to procure their right to a piece of land, the large expanses of land which will be converted to the intense monoculture cultivation practices of farming food and biofuel crops, fruit and oil palm plantations, and livestock, will deplete the natural resources for the generations following the termination of the contract.
As for a transfer in updated technology, the concept is both inaccurate and bordering on the condescending colonial notion of the foreign traveller being more knowledgeable and adept in manipulating the resources of his newly conquered land than the lazy and backward indigenous folk. Moreover, following South-East Asia's experience of the Green Revolution, whereby farmers were introduced to the "wonders" of petro-chemical farming, peasant movements are now reverting back to organic practices. The farmers I met in Kabankalan were adamant that their experience of Western technology had not only disturbed the natural ecology by bringing in alien species and crops (such as the Golden Apple Snail) but had also created an indebted farming community, consistently dependent on expensive patented seeds, pesticides, and herbicides.
Apart from an upgrade in infrastructure which will only be focused on the development and exportation of the produce belonging to the foreign nation, the majority of the host country's population will hardly benefit from such bilateral investments. Moreover, the question should be asked: what use can new roads and school buildings be for those who cannot afford to provide their children with an education, let alone purchase a vehicle? The inevitable outcome shall be that some farmers will be employed by the foreign investing party for an indeterminate period as low-wage labourers, whilst land reform remains an issue for political banter and ineffective action. The fruits will, quite literally, be reaped from the country and people which should be profiting from their own natural resources.In, what can only be described as bitter irony, agricultural outsourcing by countries such as Saudi Arabia and China will allow them to put a cap on their food insecurities whilst the Philippines, known for its millennia-old rice terraces, remains the number one global importer of rice. The story of globalisation's development and instigation of injustices and stark inequalities is hardly a new one. However, permitting it to take hold of something as vital to an individual's livelihood as food and land is definitely somewhat of a milestone in the history of free market economics and bilateral investment treaties. Very much at variance with what the advocates of foreign land leasing for agriculture contend, there are in fact losers in their claim of a "win-win" situation for all.