The myths of global land grabbing untangled

Published on The Broker, by Editor Evert-jan Quak, April 04, 2011.

This week the three day international conference on Global Land Grabbing will start in Brighton, United Kingdom. The issue of land grabbing has been on the agenda for some years now, but it seems to me that the academic focus is changing. This is my conclusion on the outcome of the “The Global Land Rush” seminar that took place on 24 March at the Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Two years ago the discussion was solely about the impact of large-scale land acquisitions of Gulf States in Africa to secure their food production and the concern with the bio-fuel expansion in prime agricultural areas in developing countries.

The debate is broader nowadays. The seminar showed that international drivers of large-scale land acquisitions are diverse as a consequence of changing demands in a rapidly urbanising world. On the other hand there is not only a global land rush. A large number of small-scale land acquisitions by domestic or regional migrants who have been attracted into new rural areas by large-scale foreign investors can be even more problematic than the initial foreign land acquisitions … //  

… How to turn these investments into benefits for local people? Is there any reason to suggest there is a spill-over effect of knowledge that can trigger modernisation impulses for local farmers? Yes and no says the 2010 World Bank report Rising global interest in farmland. This highly ambiguous report remains supportive of large-scale land acquisitions in developing countries by foreign investors, despite highlighting significant risks for vulnerable populations. There is a potential for a spill-over effect that can be used for the good, the World Bank says, but land investments have very often failed because of a lack of management.

The dogma in international economy remains that foreign investments are intrinsically good for development. But, like the study in West Africa by SNV Netherlands that researcher Joost Nelen presented at the seminar, most local impact studies on global land grabbing show that a modernisation impulse for local farmers or communities does not exist. New investors often aren’t more productive than traditional farmers, although this is often ignored by local authorities to defend land grabbing.

The SNV study and many others show there is no spill-over in the West African context. For that reason it would be interesting for the global land rush discussion to become part of the foreign direct investments (FDI) agenda. The idea that any FDI are intrinsically good for developing countries’ economies needs some fresh air.

But more importantly, are we speaking of a really new issue? The problems seem to have stayed the same for many years from the perspective of the poor. For them – on the local level – it’s the same struggle for land: they will hardly see the difference. That was a critical African voice from the audience during the Utrecht seminar. He criticised the West for the hypocrisy of putting the global land rush on the agenda as a problem, at the same time as emerging powers fast buying up land in developing countries has become a reality. Isn’t it odd, he said, to see these investors as a threat for Africa, when for decades European and American investors could buy land without any problems and without any discussions.

The Utrecht seminar had an interesting focus on the local impact of the land rush, but more attention is needed in the political and economic context of global land grabbing. The positive thing is that this will be discussed intensely at the three day International conference in Brighton that starts on Wednesday 6 April. (full text).

Link: This article is also published on Food Crisis and the Global Land Grab, 4 April 2011.

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