The Rio+20 Earth summit must back peasant farmers on land rights

Governments in the global south are claiming farmland is ‘empty’ and ‘unused’ – and flogging it off to foreigners who promise investment. The June summit in Rio needs to call a halt to this – Published on Food Crisis and the Global Land Grab, by Fred Pearce, first on The Guardian, April 17, 2012.

The agenda for the upcoming Earth summit in Rio this June has a glaring hole: land rights.

I have spent the last two years investigating the global epidemic of land grabs for a book. Saudi sheikhs, private equity whizz-kids, Indian entrepreneurs and Chinese billionaires all believe, with financier George Soros, that “farmland is going to be one of the best investments of our time”.  

They are satisfying their newfound land lust from Mali to Mozambique, Cambodia to Kazakhstan, and Paraguay to Papua New Guinea, usually seeking out unfenced “customary” land to grow grains, sugar, vegetable oils and biofuel for sale on the world’s booming commodity markets.

This unprecedented corporate privatisation and enclosure of the world’s common lands – its pastures, fields and forests – is being done in the name of development. But much of it will destroy development and impoverish the poorest. Tuesday, the International Day of Peasant Struggle, is a good moment to call on the Rio Earth summit to declare a halt … //

… In Kenya, angry locals told me how they had lost the rich resources of the Yala swamp, on the shores of Lake Victoria, to an evangelical American who made his fortune managing privatised prisons.

I discovered that the government of newly independent South Sudan handed out a tenth of its land to foreigners before even raising the flag for the first time last year. Not far from the capital, Juba, a British investment banker, Leonard Thatcher, claims control of more than half a million hectares, in a deal done with an aged chief whose people have denounced the deal.

Post-imperial governments across the world spent half a century putting communally owned land in state hands. The land was being held in trust for the people, they said. Now those governments are claiming the land is “empty” and “unused” – and flogging it off to foreigners who promise investment. After decades of under-investment in African agriculture, governments seem willing to accept any kind of investment.

Some say this is necessary to feed the world? I don’t believe so. I agree with the World Bank report which noted in 2009 that “there is little evidence that the large-scale farming model is either necessary or even particularly promising for Africa”. And with the Ford Foundation’s Pablo Farias, who recently called for the Earth summit to “endorse community land rights”, noting that “when land rights of rural communities are recognised, far more sustainable land uses evolve”.

This is about both practicality as much as equity. What sense does it make to grab the land of the poorest and hungriest, in the name of feeding the planet? We need to invest in peasant farmers, not dispossess them. An Earth summit that declared in favour of the land rights of peasant farmers would be a victory indeed. Otherwise, we face a new tragedy of the commons. (full text).

(Fred Pearce’s The Landgrabbers is published by Eden Project Books on 24 May, 2012).

Link: Food crisis and the global land grab, weekly, 18 Apr 2012 (available in English | français | Español | other | events).

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