The Landgrabbers

“Buy Land. They are not making it anymore.” This statement by Mark Twain uttered more than one hundred years ago still holds a sad and powerful truth and makes a telling start for Fred Pearce ‘s account about the fight over the Earth’s most precious resources, land and water. On 356 pages the reader is taken on a whirlwind tour around the globe and witnesses through Pearce’s eyes and pen a new colonialism driven not by countries but by the most powerful private capitalists, which constitutes a final enclosure of the planet’s last wild places. We encounter illustrious figures such as George Soros and Richard Branson, learn about the conflicts in the DRC and Liberia and why the Land Take of Mugabe in Zimbabwe wasn’t too bad after all for small scale farmers and how the global financial crisis and the intricate mechanisms of stock market speculations in commodities exacerbate the round-up on the global commons. Pearce’s passion and his outrage about this sell-out of communal resources shines through the lines. Each chapter is dedicated to a certain country, where protagonists change, yet the storyline stays the same: Governments around the globe grant large concessions to Machiavellian investors to advance their economies whilst displacing and disadvantaging large part of their own population. The classical land-based development conundrum.

Pearce’s Dystopia

Pearce hits us with a dystopian views of ever expanding landgrabbs for agriculture, resource exploitation and well-meaning environmentalist (so called green grabs) that are encircling on the last remaining habitat of indigenous peoples and the landless poor, destroying their past and forever altering their future. He mixes his narrative with historical references to imperialism and colonialism giving the impression of a continuous cycle of exploitation. Pearce great achievement is to give those exploited a voice. He recounts their stories in numerous interviews, but also speaks with the grabbers and a large amount of experts. Yet, the blame clearly rests with the foreign buyers. This narrative slightly neglects, that most deals are pursued by their respective governments, who give out these large land concessions, tax breaks and other incentives to draw foreign capital into their country. Politicians are not only accomplices but also carve out large deals in terms of money or land for themselves. This is enabled by an environment where laws are either non-existent or circumvented. Graziano da Silva, the director general of the FAO, confirms: “It appears to be like the wild west and we need a sheriff and law in place.”

Indigenous people often bear the brunt of land based development initiatives, Barbaig Tanzania 2012

Indigenous people often bear the brunt of land based development initiatives, Barbaig Tanzania 2012


Pearce sadly misses the opportunity to take the next step and develop workable solutions from his extensive research and his experience as an environment and development consultant. If the national governments are unable or unwilling to devise regulations Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, calls on the international community to fill in and monitor whether the rights of land users are effectively respected. Oxfam’s recent report “Our land, Our lives”  for example highlights the pivotal role of the World Bank as an advisor to Governments in reforming their laws. This is easier said than done as a representative from USAID admitted off the records in Dar es Salaam: “Land tenure, we know, is on the heart of many problems as it is difficult for poor people to feed themselves with limited and insecure access to land, but we are not touching this subject, because its too contentious and complicated”. Thus, without the strong political will of the home government to implement reforms in land laws, put a stop to corruption and illegal backroom deals little will change.

Sustainability standards of private investors

Another way the international community and private companies themselves seek to mitigate the negative impacts are emerging sustainability standards. The Worldbank and its private sector funding arm the IFC have very strict regulations regarding Social and Environmental Sustainability including standards on development-induced displacement and there is increasing concern on behalf of the Banks for correct implementation.

A distinctly private sector initiative is Bonsucro driven by the big sugar buyers such as Coca Cola and Kraft. This standard aims to achieve sustainable production of sugarcane. Growing sugarcane generally comes at a massive cost for the host nation. The crop, usually planted to satisfy the ethanol demands of Western markets, gulps up a huge amount of water, is usually harvested in plantation style agriculture with little room for intercropping and thus can threatens domestic food security. It can be harvested mechanically requiring little manual labour which limits job creation. Thus, the Bonsucro standards cover a whole range of sustainability issues from human rights to pollution control and management practices. Being metric based it can be audited and companies can be certified.  At its core is the establishment of a sustainable industry for the miller, growers and the community. It is driven by the end users and compliance is sought as a good business practice. Mike Ogg, an agriculture specialist from Swaziland works on the development of those sustainability safeguards and also advises community farmers how to combine subsistence agriculture with an element of entrepreneurship. He disagrees with easy-way out solutions such as recently put forward by Oxfam, that called for a complete moratorium on World Bank funded land deals. Ogg says: “I fundamentally believe that agriculture can lead development in Africa. The natural resource potential is too great for it not to have a massive impact going forward. The quandary is how do you create a win-win situation whereby investors and the community benefit. I am seeing more and more that these checks and balances are being put in place through the use of standards in the development and operations of these agri-business investments.”  Pearce acknowledges these developments in his last chapter where he analyses attempts at solution finding by Paul Collier and Robert Watson and advocates for inter-African cooperation on the matters. Altogether, Pearce’s book is a worthwhile and well researched read. His writing style is highly engaging and reveals the double speak of investors and interest groups. He not only presents complicated and contentious issues such as the correlation of Wall Street speculations and rising food prices in an accessible manner, he also masterfully interweaves stories and issues across countries and continents achieving a coherent, logical and informative account. He took on a  grim subject without easy solutions, but as Pearce states in his introduction: “It is not all bad, but it all merits attention.”


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