‘The Global Farms Race’: Comprehensive Study of Large-Scale Land Acquisitions Launches at Wilson CenterNovember 28, 2012 By Michael Kugelman
Last month, Oxfam made an extraordinary request. It asked the World Bank to freeze its investments in agricultural land.
At a time when urbanization and growing service industries are bringing great neglect to agricultural sectors across much of the developing world, why would Oxfam want the World Bank to suspend its generous levels of agricultural funding?
The answer, provided by Oxfam in an October report (and also in an accompanying video; see above), is that the World Bank’s farming investments are worsening poverty, injustice, and food insecurity. More specifically, stated Oxfam, these investments are enabling the practice of “land grabbing” – the large-scale acquisition of farmland abroad by capital-rich, food-importing countries and by wealthy private corporations.
Two hundred thirty million hectares of farmland (roughly 575 million acres) have been snapped up in this fashion since 2001, according to Oxfam, with the majority acquired since 2008. The total land area acquired so far is equal to the size of Western Europe, with “an area of land the size of London” bought in poor countries every six days. The International Land Coalition’s Land Matrix website provides an idea of the immense scope and scale of these deals.
Oxfam’s report was issued around the same time as the release of the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2012 Global Hunger Index rankings, which revealed that some of the world’s most food-insecure countries – Cambodia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Laos, Liberia, the Philippines, and Sierra Leone – have relinquished vast expanses of precious farmland (in each country’s case, more than 10 percent of total agricultural area) to foreign investors. Investment plans call for financiers to cultivate crops and then export them back home.
Is the situation really this glum?
Not necessarily – there are some agricultural deals that really do help local populations. As I recently discussed in a Sustainable Security.org piece, a German government study projects that a sugar production project in Mali will lead to a jobs bonanza, for example. Unfortunately, however, such examples represent the exceptions rather than the norm.
In The Global Farms Race: Land Grabs, Agricultural Investment, and the Scramble for Food Security, a new collection of essays launching December 4 at the Wilson Center, Susan L. Levenstein and I highlight false promises of investor benefits (including better farming technologies, more agricultural employment, and higher farm yields), the displacement of impoverished smallholders, and grave environmental degradation.
This book is the first comprehensive study of large-scale land acquisitions, and The Christian Science Monitor graciously named it 1 of 23 new books that the two U.S. presidential candidates should have read. We identify the chief investors, regional targets, and motivations; trace historical precedents; and consider conflict potential.
Yet The Global Farms Race also highlights some of the forgotten success stories, and considers if they can offer hope for truly sustainable deals that work for all parties – investors, host governments, and, above all, local communities.
This is a story with global impacts, and, given the realities of high commodity prices, population growth, food demand, and natural resource constraints, it certainly is not going away anytime soon. Please join us at the launch of The Global Farms Race at the Wilson Center on December 4 for an in-depth discussion of our findings, with presentations from contributors to the book and other experts.
Michael Kugelman is a senior program associate with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, and Susan L. Levenstein is a former program assistant with the Asia Program.
Sources: The Christian Science Monitor, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Germany), International Food Policy Research Institute, International Land Coalition, Oxfam, Reuters.
Video Credit: “Our Land, Our Lives,” courtesy of Oxfam.