The Landgrabbers: who owns the planet?

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The great land swindle: big companies and rich individuals are buying up land to turn a profit. (image: Shutterstock.com)

The latest book by science and environment author Fred Pearce is a breezy waltz through a key global problem that has yet to register with most people.

In 2008, food prices around the world spiked, tipping many on the edges of poverty into crisis. But the rise in the cost of food also focused the minds of financiers, businessmen, oligarchs and Gulf oil sheikhs. After the disaster of subprime mortgages, land seemed a surefire bet and there was something comforting about this red-hot investment being tangible.

The rush for land has also been given the blessing of many in power, including the British government’s chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, who argues the only way to feed a growing population is to hand over the world’s farmland to productive agri-businesses.

Pearce’s Landgrabbers is an attempt to knock a hole in this argument. With half the world’s poor and hungry living on small farms, how can it make sense to take away their land in the context of feeding the world, asks Pearce. Indeed far from solving the problem, he argues, landgrabbing is having a greater impact on the lives of poor people than climate change. People are invariably cleared from the land when foreign investors lease or are given ‘state-owned’, but usually common land.

Ethiopia sells off good land
The book starts in Ethiopia, where the government intends to lease three million hectares to foreign investors by 2015. Much of this land is in one of the poorest, most underdeveloped parts of the country. It sets up the issues well, highlighting the irony of a country so often plagued by drought handing over its best land to foreign businesses intending to develop it for profit, rather than feed the local population.


With half the world’s poor and hungry living on small farms, how can it make sense to take away their land in the context of feeding the world?

The situation in Ethiopia also illustrates the huge environmental catastrophe caused by many landgrabs – much of the land buy-ups are threatening one of the biggest and most important animal migration routes in Africa.

A quick side-step takes the reader to the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia. Armed with technological know-how and billions of petrol dollars the Saudis have turned desert into pasture. Tapping on an underground reservoir, the desert sand has been transformed into lush fields supporting the world’s largest diary farm, and millions of hectares have been turned over to wheat, to such a level that Saudi is now one of the world’s biggest exporters of grain.

The trapped underground water is, however, a finite resource, which like the country’s oil is rapidly running dry. And so the agri-rich princes and sultans have turned their focus abroad buying up land in Sudan, in Egypt, in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines and Pakistan.

It is the same all over the Middle East, from Qatar to the UAE. And it is not only petrol-rich Arabs that are buying up land. In South Sudan it is a Wall Street investor who has bought land from an alleged war lord.


Tapping on an underground reservoir the sand has been turned into lush pasture supporting the world’s largest diary farm.

In Kenya we meet the do-gooder – an American agriculture entrepreneur, whose Christian evangelicalism has brought him to Africa. Here a plan to drain swampland to create a huge farm intended to bring prosperity to the area is moving apace. Sure enough, many workers are happy and prospering. Bicycles and tin roofs have proliferated since Calvin Burgess arrived. Bankers and a shopping complex have opened in the nearby town, and poverty has dropped from 85% to 60%.

But the seeming success also illustrates how nothing in this story is black or white. On the other side of the fence to the farm, Pearce finds hardship and anger. Villagers claim their common pasture lands have been taken from them, that crocodiles have become a problem since they have been trapped downstream by a large weir constructed by the company, and there are even allegations that locals need permission from the farm to travel down what seems to be a public road.

And so the reader is taken around the globe. To Liberia, where an estimated $16bn (£10.3bn) of investment has flowed in from abroad since 2005. To Ukraine, where despite regulations banning the sale of farmland to foreigners, $8bn has been spent on land leases betwen 2008 and 2010.

The other Amazon
In Brazil, the government has done well to tide the onslaught on the Amazon, but it has ignored the plight of another environmental treasure – the great plains of the cerrado. This area, as rich in biodiversity as the Amazon, is being ploughed up by soya businesses.

In Paraguay, a remote and important forest is being lost at a rate of a thousand hectares a day, or a soccer pitch every 90 seconds. In Papua New Guinea, loggers are penetrating one of the most unexplored areas on the planet. In Cambodia, a European incentive that allows the world’s poorest countries to export unlimited quantities of certain goods to the EU with zero tariffs has resulted in thousands of people being thrown off their land in favour of sugar growers. In Laos, traditional rice fields are being replaced with giant Chinese rubber plantations.

The catastrophic situation in Indonesia is left until two-thirds of the way through the book. It is a well-told tale. But in the context of the pages that have gone before the extent of the destruction of the rich rainforest by paper and plywood manufacturers still hits home.


In Paraguay a remote and important forest is being lost at a rate of a thousand hectares a day, or a soccer pitch every 90 seconds. 

Even Australia, a country that is hugely protective of its land, has seen millions of hectares fall into the hands of foreigners as Australian landowners struggling against drought and frozen credit lines have taken the foreign buck.

It is not all slash and burn. In his trek across the continents of the world, Pearce does find a handful of examples of good land management where foreign investment has brought relative prosperity to the local population and where sustainability has been considered. In Liberia, for example, British farm manager Peter Bayliss seems to be doing a good job. And in Patagonia Pearce finds a large area of land bought up by a number of green-minded super-rich intent on preserving a wild, empty backwater of the world.

Green wash
But even ‘green landgrabs’ are not all good. In Tanzania, Pearce describes the plight of the Maasai, who are largely banned from the nature reserves that take in their tribal lands.

Landgrabbers is a well-paced and thorough examination of the situation on the ground. It is packed with case studies and in the most part rather depressing statistics. But in his desire to cover the global extent of the problem, Pearce’s trek becomes a bit of a catalogue that never quite gets to grips with the drivers.

It starts with the premise that this is a ‘new fight over who owns the earth’, and yet time after time examples are drawn upon where land has been in foreign hands for decades. Clearly this is not a new phenomenon. Campaigners have been highlighting the fate of the Amazon for years, for example.

What seems to be new is the scale. But then from the beginning Pearce says that nobody really knows how much land has been lost to rich corporations and individuals since the food crisis of 2008, and he makes no attempt to quantify it.

He also fails properly to answer the question of why the sudden rush has occurred. There is a short chapter on market speculation, where Pearce states boldly that ‘hedge funds and anonymous investment houses and asset managers have driven much of the Western-funded landgrabbing to date. But even bigger than the hedge funds are the pension funds, with their trillions of dollars of assets.’ But the book does not  examine who these hedge funds, anonymous investment houses, and pension funds are, bar a handful of examples. The numerous case studies cited in chapter after chapter are corporations or rich individuals.

But the book’s launch is well timed. Just last week US Pension giant TIAA-CREF announced it had raised $2bn to invest in land. And earlier this year the UN proposed countries should set a limit on agriculture land sales in an attempt to limit landgrabs. Pearce may not have nailed the size of the problem or the City pot pouring into land, but he certainly highlights what has been described as ‘the biggest swindle of the 21st century’.

For more details on Landgrabbers click here.

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