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The great land grab

By Peter Curson - posted Thursday, 8 January 2009


Today’s food and financial crisis has produced a new global land grab in the developing world. Food insecure governments particularly in the Middle East and Asia are investing heavily in vast areas of agricultural land abroad while big business concerned for profits in an ever deepening economic crisis sees investment in foreign agricultural land as a way of protecting profits in an insecure world.

Is history repeating itself? Up until the 1950s many European powers shamelessly exploited the natural resources of their colonies. Now a new and subtle form of neo-colonialism is emerging whereby countries like China, Japan, India, Kuwait, Qatar and South Korea are snapping up vast tracts of agricultural land in developing countries to produce biofuels and food for themselves.

At the last count at least 14 countries were controlling or actively seeking farmland in the developing world.

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So significant has this land grab become that it bears comparison with the mad scramble for territory in Africa by the European powers during the latter part of the 19th century. Qatar, has for example, approached Kenya to lease 40,000 acres to grow crops as well as made overtures to Cambodia for access to rice fields, while other Gulf States have been negotiating leases of large tracts of agricultural land in countries like the Sudan and Senegal.

More recently, South Korea, through its company Daewoo Logistics, is taking a 99-year lease on 3.2 million acres of land in Madagascar - 50 per cent of all the cultivated land on the island - and an area equivalent to almost half the size of Belgium! The intention is to produce about 5 million metric tonnes of maize and 500,000 tonnes of palm oil (for biofuel) every year.

China, with 20 per cent of the world’s population but only 9 per cent of the world’s agricultural land, has not been far behind, and is said to have recently announced a commitment of $US5 billion for Chinese corporations to invest in African agriculture in the next 50 years, even despatching its own nationals to oversee and join the local labour force. Everyone it seems wants to be a part of the act and African countries are either actively courting possible suitors or reacting to requests from Asia and Europe.

The greatest irony in this land grab is that poor states with very limited food supples will be producing food for rich countries. Who said history doesn’t repeat itself? It is like we are re-living the height of the colonial period again with its large scale transfer of food and other natural resources from colony to motherland.

Land grabbing is not new. It has been going on for centuries. Historically one only has to think of how white Europeans dispossessed the Maori in New Zealand, the native Indians in North America or the Zulu in South Africa. Today, it remains very much alive and hardly a day goes by without reports of multi-nationals dispossessing peasant farmers in Central America, so as to grow pet food for the US market, or of huge development projects which threaten deforestation and the livelihood of indigenous populations.

In many instances, land has become a battleground between foreign countries and “outside” business interests, ranged against local peasants and indigenous ethnic groups.

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Two agendas are driving the current grab for land.

First, the concern over food security. The circumstances behind this land grab differ between prospective suitors. China, for example, with its huge population and dwindling farmlands and water resources is thinking of the future and has deep pockets to invest in overseas food sources with the long-term in mind.

By comparison, the Gulf States with scarce soil and water resources on which to grow crops, but vast oil and cash reserves, have watched their dependence on imported food supplies from Europe become increasingly expensive and uncertain. In the case of Japan and South Korea, both countries have for long had a dependence on imported food to feed their populations.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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