The most visible driver of the recent land acquisitions was the 2008 food crisis. In 2007-2008 the huge increase in the price of agricultural products, like wheat, rice, corn, and other cereals, provoked a serious food crisis. Countries with large populations and food security concerns such as China, South Korea and India are seeking opportunities to produce food overseas, especially in developing countries where production costs are much lower and where land and water are more abundant.
Food and energy security and the volatility of global commodity prices remain long-term concerns for most countries. Nevertheless long-term factors have also driven the recent surge of investment on agricultural land. Of cross-referenced deals for which the commodity is known, 78% are for agricultural production, of which three-quarters are for bio fuel. Mineral extraction, industry, tourism and forest conversion are also significant contributors, adding up to the remaining 22%.[i]
A big push is coming from agro-fuels for transport & manufactured goods. Several countries (EU Community, USA, and Brazil) have set targets on the use of renewable energy to reduce their dependence on foreign oil and address climate change and so governments offer financial incentives to their companies and stimulate private investment to produce agro-fuels overseas that, by the way may lead to increased food prices and, thereby, threaten the food security of local communities.
Among the long-term factors, water is one of the most significant drivers. In some parts of the world, like the Gulf States, water from economically important river basins and aquifers is already overused, severely limiting the possibilities of increasing the quantity of water for irrigation. Land and water are the main resources of farming families. Land grabbing induces “water grabbing” too, as industrial agriculture requires huge amounts of water whose privatization, as locals, including those downstream cannot use it. In addition to this, the large irrigation canals, deplete the deep layers of water and may result in permanently destroying water basins that are crucial for both the region's biodiversity and traditional ways of life.
In the end, land grabbing tells an unhappy story.
Farmers lose their land and the way of life they have lived by for generations; they lose access to resources including areas for farming, grazing, fishing, hunting, gathering (mushrooms, herbs, nuts, fruits, honey and other foods), collecting firewood and materials for various activities. Without land they are obliged to become daily laborers or tenants; but even these opportunities are becoming scarce and they are forced to migrate oversees or to urban areas where they are not always able to secure a job, and often end up living on the margins of society. Women, as the main food producers and those with “weaker” land rights, are often those more affected. Local communities often recount that the most painful thing for them is the loss of the land of their ancestors and of some sites with a strong spiritual connotation where they perform traditional ceremonies.
The vast majority of locals receive no compensation for their loss. When compensation is provided, it rarely covers the true value of the land and the sources of income and production lost. The compensation received does not allow farmers to survive beyond 2 or 3 years. Corruption plays a role in unjust compensations.
Land grabbing constitutes a violation of international human rights law through forced evictions, the prevention of meaningful local participation of communities in political decisions that affect their lives, the flagrant denial of information to those affected, the silencing and imprisonment of critics, the introduction of non-sustainable models of land use and agriculture that destroy natural environments and deplete natural resources. Every government is responsible for the respect of the human and socio-economic rights of its population and no public policy that disregards them is justifiable even if presented as public policy or state regulation.
Land grabbing threatens the human right to food security and food sovereignty as it makes it increasingly hard for local communities and countries to feed themselves because of the diversion of the food produced at industrial level to foreign countries. Added to that is the fact that the governments of many countries suffering from food insecurity are leasing or selling their land without mechanisms to ensure that the investments contribute to improved food security for their population.[ii]
Several studies have been undertaken to assess the impact of land grabbing on the local population. These studies need to take more and more different levels into account: social, economic, cultural, environmental, as well as the impact on farmers, development, food security and sovereignty, and production. There is an urgent need to undertake many more cases-studies in different countries, to identify the benefits and losses associated with these land investments, and to bridge the information and knowledge gap that currently still exists.
[i] On this point see L. COTULA, S. VERMEULEN, R. LEONARD, J. KEELEY, Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa, London-Rome, 2009, pp. 65 ss.
[ii] Source: L. Cotula, P. Mathieu, Legal empowerment in practice. Using legal tools to secure land rights in Africa, London/ Rome, 2008