Foreign land grab threat not just an illusion

Bangkok Post | 24 May 2012

by Sanitsuda Ekachai, Assistant Editor, Bangkok Post

Remember the news three years ago about some Saudi sheikhs trying to buy up paddy fields in central Thailand to ensure a steady rice supply for their oil-rich but food-scarce countries?

Back then, the authorities could not deliver any evidence of the buy-ups, and blamed foreign men with Thai wives for purchasing local land through proxy ownership. That's why I thought the brouhaha was simply a case of xenophobia.

Now, I am not so sure.

Thanks to research by farmers rights group GRAIN on worldwide farmland grabs, I couldn't help wondering if the scapegoating was a ploy to shift public attention from the real culprits.

GRAIN, an international non-profit group that supports small farmers' rights, has documented an alarming trend of governments and corporations buying up farmland on a large scale in more than 60 developing countries to produce basic foods for export.

Renee Vellve, GRAIN co-founder and researcher, said the massive rush was triggered by the food crisis in 2007 and 2008.

To protect themselves, the food-importing countries led by the Gulf States started to use "farming abroad" to secure direct food supplies.

Meanwhile, the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 also encouraged the finance industry to regard farmland as a new source of healthy returns.

According to the World Bank, about 50 million hectares of land were sold or under long-term lease to foreign governments and investors in 2008 and 2009 alone. It's a conservative estimate. According to Land Matrix, an online public database of large-scale land deals, 227 million hectares were involved in this global farmland grab.

That is more than 1,400 million rai of farmland, or half the land area of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

As a result of this global land grabbing, millions of poor farmers are being thrown off their land, local water sources are siphoned to feed giant agro-industries, and ecosystems are severely damaged by large-scale chemical-intensive plantations.

In short, poor people are being robbed of their livelihoods to make food security in rich countries possible.

GRAIN was last year awarded the Right Livelihood Award, an alternative Nobel Prize, for exposing this ruthless global land grabbing which is driven by rich governments and multinational corporations and financed by powerful pension funds and multilateral agencies.

Farmland earns high returns, with fertile land becoming scarcer as food prices rise worldwide.

According to Black Sea Agriculture, an investing firm, farmland earned the highest returns of 635% in 2010, two times more than gold and stocks, and about six times more than real estate.

The acquisition of massive amounts of farmland in foreign countries comes in many guises, from direct purchases, state concessions, to long-term leases.

The business structures also vary, such as direct management, joint ventures, contract farming, and farming companies.

Land is also being sought for biofuels, timber plantations, carbon credits, mining, and tourism.

Among the main countries seeking farmland abroad are the Gulf States, China, South Korea and Japan. Closer to home are Singapore and Malaysia, GRAIN says.

More than half of the deals happen in Africa. But the threats are also palpable in Southeast Asia.

For example, Kuwait is reportedly investing US$20 million to irrigate 4,500 hectares in Laos to produce rice for export to Kuwait.

GRAIN has not documented land grabbing in Thailand, but a similar pattern is taking place here.

While the buying up of paddy fields has yet to be exposed, many scenic areas in resort towns are now in the hands of foreign real estate businesses.

For years, mountains in the North have been turned into chemical-intensive orange plantations by Chinese money and corn plantations by contract farm giants.

Meanwhile, forest dwellers are kicked off their ancestral land for forest officials' carbon credit money. Old communities are also evicted from the forests to make way for timber and oil palm plantations.

Concerns about massive land grabbing have nothing to do with xenophobia.

They stem from a desire to hold the government accountable when the drive to make Thailand the so-called Kitchen of the World ends up destroying local ecological systems, small farmers' livelihoods, and our very own food security.

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