‘Landgrabbing’ is occupying the minds of rural sociologists throughout the world.
How should we interpret the phenomenon of large-scale land acquisitions that are occurring, with increased frequency, in both developing and developed nations?
One of the most controversial issues being currently discussed by rural sociologists is that of large-scale land acquisitions. It is clear that a number of powerful actors from the global financial sector – including private equity firms, merchant banks, hedge funds and pension funds – are investing heavily in farm lands. So, too, are the sovereign wealth funds from oil-rich but land-poor nations. It is estimated that some 227 million hectares of farmland has been purchased or leased in recent years – often in poorer developing nations and usually in a manner which displaces local populations, including subsistence producers. The land is then used to grow crops for biofuel, for production of food and timber for the domestic and international marketplace, and for the production of food for repatriation to those nations where food security issues are a problem, or which may be a problem in future years.
Today’s land purchases might be viewed as a continuation of the historical legacy of colonialism and imperialism – perpetuating past land appropriations along with the attendant violence and dispossession which accompanied those earlier land invasions. But large-scale land purchases are also occurring in developed countries. And, there is evidence that governments in both developing and developed nations are welcoming foreign investment as a new catalyst for revival of often sluggish farming economies.
How is it best to understand the ‘landgrab’ phenomenon? There are a number of apparent insights. First, arable and grazing lands are becoming scarce commodities. As the human population grows (from 7 billion people, today, to 9.3 billion by 2050) there will be significant pressure on land to produce food and fuel. Second, but connected to the first point, land values are increasing. So, in economically fragile, post-GFC, times devoid of speculative dot.com or housing ‘bubbles’, agricultural land is coming to be seen as a reliable medium- to long-term investment. Third, after the riots following the food price hikes of 2008, the governments of many food-vulnerable (but often wealthy) nations have been anxious to ensure that food supplies will be guaranteed into the future. Purchasing farmlands abroad can assist in fulfilling this aim. Fourth, global climate change impacts are expected to impede the expansion of food production, as droughts become more prevalent and low-lying but highly productive farming deltas are inundated by sea water. Finally, the world appears to be entering an era of ‘peak’ oil, ‘peak’ phosphorus and fresh-water scarcity where the costs of inputs to commercial agriculture are expected to rise – potentially leading to increases in food prices. Purchasing land can allow investors to capture food price increases and/or – in the case of lands owned abroad by sovereign wealth funds – help insulate overseas-based populations from food price inflation.
In relation to many of the points, above, it is possible to understand why, for economic reasons, there are large-scale acquisitions of what are considered to be ‘undervalued’ farmlands throughout the world. But there seem to be two diametrically-opposing approaches in interpreting its significance. The first is to view investments in overseas farmlands in terms of the normal/desirable operation of free-market forces. Here, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) will move into areas in which profits can be made. In rural regions this investment will replace inefficient subsistence-style farming with commercial enterprises geared to export agriculture, increasing profits in the farming sector while removing labour. Those leaving agriculture can move into the burgeoning urban areas where jobs can be obtained in manufacturing and other industries. This modernization approach assumes that industrialization (jobs in the cities) will follow more-or-less directly from increases in agricultural efficiency and productivity – allowing people in the cities to be fed and clothed as the economy is transformed into an urbanized ‘western’ model. In contrast, the appropriation of farmlands from some of the poorest peoples in the world is interpreted as a form of neo-colonialism, one that leads to the ‘depeasantisation’ of the countryside, pushing rural people into urban slums where jobs are menial and difficult to obtain, and where access to food becomes a day-to-day struggle. The farmlands once producing for local consumption now grow crops for export and for conversion into biofuels. This reduces, rather than assists, these modernizing economies to provide food security for their citizens. Rural sociologists are, quite appropriately, at the forefront of these debates but a great deal more research needs to be undertaken to examine the on-ground, local, impacts and longer-term consequences of these large-scale land appropriations.
In the February 2013 edition of the journal Globalizations (Vol 10, Issue 1) the question of ‘Land Grabbing and Global Governance’ is discussed, with fourteen papers addressing concerns such as: land acquisition and human rights; agro-investments from the Gulf countries; regulation of land grabs; certification schemes; rural social movements; and, political strategies for addressing land grabs. It represents a major contribution to the field and will be of great interest to rural sociologists.