Earth Day 2013: Land for food under attack worldwide

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Photo: CaseyLessard / flickr

As Earth Week 2013 rolls around, a frenzy of land grabbing threatens our food supply, Indigenous land use practices, access to water and the future of farming. In recent years the focus on speculation in food prices caused riots in over 30 countries. However, speculative investment has turned its eye in 2013 from food commodities to farmland itself. Land is now considered a safer bet.

The formula has not changed though: investment funds estimate that as population increases, more people will seek to eat, and the value of places to grow food will go up. Farmland investment company Agcapita's website touts land for sale: "Agcapita believes farmland is a safe investment, that supply is shrinking and that unprecedented demand for 'food, feed and fuel' will continue to move crop prices higher over the long-term. We believe Canadian farmland has some highly unique and useful characteristics … if structured correctly, [it offers] minimal counter-party risk and in certain markets a margin of safety due to discounted prices." Scarcity begets a good speculative market -- too bad that scarcity in this case means hunger.

 Whether it is development, speculation on food prices, land purchase for countries running low on their own land, or mining, land for food is under attack. Land grabbing has led to fierce resistance, murders and an investment climate that has started to sound like the mythical Wild West. In many places, including Canada, much of the land was never ceded to colonial governments. The traditional lands are not titled and legislated according to market capitalism, though their traditional use and occupation is self-evident.

In places like Ethiopia, land was nationalized during a socialist past. Now, as science writer Fred Pearce has documented, cash-strapped governments are selling the people's land to the highest bidder. The goal is ostensibly industrial farming, often for biofuels to take advantage of the new European mandate for alternative fuels. However, actual farming efforts often seem half-hearted. As in early land speculation during settlement in Canada, land is held by the elites to await future prices. Whether or not it is used during that wait is immaterial.

As Pearce documents, land contracts often contain clauses that give exclusive or priority access to water. They often require that the government ensure that the land is empty (that is, they must evict the traditional holders). Evictions, by their nature, are rarely gentle . Villages have been burned and resisters brutally murdered. In Tanzania, the removals were not for farming but for giant safari parks for wealthy tourists. The result is starvation for people who have been on the land as long as anyone can remember. "Poaching" is sometimes a matter of traditional users trying to maintain their sustainable way of life on land where wealthy hunters pay thousands to shoot themselves a new rug.

Canadian investors have joined the new investment rush enthusiastically, including Emergent Asset Management, and the British companies of the Weston family (Loblaws, etc.) Pension fund investors have followed suit. Canada's governments have laid out the red carpet for land grabbing; the National Farmers' Union reports loosening of foreign ownership prohibitions and support for foreign creation of subsidiary companies to buy up land.

What is lost in the turn to land for speculative investment? We are losing alternative property relations in a mad rush to commodification and titling. This includes indigenous land models, both in Canada, and around the world, as well as long-term farming communities. We are losing farmland at a grievous rate -- over 600,000 acres in Ontario in five years. Land that goes for development destroys more than the farms it absorbs. According to Daniels of the University of Pennsylvania, for every acre sold to development, three acres in nearby farms goes up for sale. To add to our troubles, we are losing farmers even faster than land.

We are also losing traditions and expertise of sharing land: the beaches along Lake Huron that everyone can access, the common pastures and forests that still exist, the delicacies of local shared management of resources for now and generations to come. As Nobel-prize winning economist Ostrom has demonstrated, the true commons is governed through sustainable management and use by a local group, not a devastating free-for-all as the proponents of market capitalism imagine.

As Canada's farmers near retirement (almost 50 per cent are 55 or older), they are burdened with debt and exhaustion from fighting a losing proposition—farm product prices that have not risen since the 1970s, and costs of farming that have risen ever higher. Why should they be expected to sell their land for less than the highest amount, or to continue to farm until they drop dead at their tractor? We cannot expect farmers to value and protect agricultural land when the rest of us do not.

Like currency, oil, housing and grain before now, land investment is a mad grab for money that teeters (or plows through) the edge of legality. Pearce reports on portfolio managers, already notorious for their criminal activities, mobilizing millions to buy land in Africa or Asia, and then mysteriously vanishing. They leave behind half-baked websites, burned villages and worthless shares. Land is sold that still belongs (by use or title) to someone else. In one case, more land was sold from one African country than was comprised in that country’s land mass. In England, the news has been full of warnings about putting your savings into land investments.

What are we losing? We are losing an essential relation between people and the earth. When land becomes a commodity only, and becomes the focus of global large-scale speculation, we lose local and embedded meaning and diversity. We lose the care and stewardship that comes from knowing that one’s identity is intricately tied to a particular landscape. We lose the sustainable practices of long-term commitment to respectful use. We lose the possibility of shared decision-making over a resource held in common by those who use it, celebrate it, cultivate it, nurture it and remember it. We make a shift from land that is valued for meaning and history to land that is valued for the promise of future monetary profits.

In Kenya people told Pearce, "If it all goes wrong, or if they lose interest, they just go home. We have to stay. This is our land."

This is our planet. We cannot afford the cost of speculative Earth.


See Fred Pearce's The Land Grabbers for more. Also the Land Portal and the International Land Coalition.

Sally Miller is a researcher and writer on food and agriculture issues, and is the author of Edible Action: Food Activism and Alternative Economics (Fernwood Publishing 2008). She is currently at work on a book on land for food.

Photo: CaseyLessard / flickr 

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