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article imageThe Great Western Landgrab set to devour Third World: Research

By Subir Ghosh     Sep 29, 2011 in World
As much as 227 million hectares – an area the size of Western Europe – have been sold, leased or licensed in largescale land deals in the developing world since 2001, mostly by international investors.
This modern-day land rush follows a drive to produce enough food for people overseas, meet damaging biofuels targets or speculate on land to make an easy profit, an Oxfam International study ‘Land and Power: The growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investments in land’ has warned. Most of these deals are ‘land grabs’ where the rights and needs of the people living on the land are ignored, leaving them homeless and without land to grow enough food to eat and make a living. Oxfam describes this as development in reverse.
Lack of transparency and the secrecy that surrounds land deals make it difficult to get exact figures, but to date up to 1,100 of these deals amounting to 67 million hectares have been cross-checked. Half of these deals are in Africa, and cover an area nearly the size of Germany. The preliminary research for the Oxfam study was conducted by the Land Matrix Partnership, a coalition of academic, research and non-governmental organisations.
It would not be easy to dismiss the Oxfam report and its warnings as scare-mongering. A World Bank had in 2009 had put this figure at 56 million hectares for the 11 preceding months.
The reason behind the recent rise in land acquisitions, says Oxfam, can be explained by the 2007–08 food prices crisis, which led investors and governments to turn their attention towards agriculture after decades of neglect. But this interest in land is not something that will pass; it is a trend with strong drivers. The land deals are very often intended to produce for foreign food and biofuel markets. They can often rightly be called ‘land grabs’.
Thousands of people have been persuaded to part with their land on the basis of false promises (in Indonesia) or have been evicted from their lands and their homes (in Uganda, Guatemala, and Honduras). The new land deals often unsettle communities, as they undermine the sharing of communal lands and create divisions. This is what happened in Tayan Hulu (and other Dayak communities in Indonesia), where the development of the oil palm plantation has created a rift between the community and its traditional leaders.
Based on its findings, the Oxfam said ‘land grabs’ do the following:
• Violate human rights, and particularly the equal rights of women;
• Flout the principle of free, prior, and informed consent of the affected land users, particularly indigenous peoples;
• Ignore the impacts on social, economic, and gender relations, and on the environment;
• Avoid transparent contracts with clear and binding commitments on employment and benefit sharing;
• Eschew democratic planning, independent oversight, and meaningful participation.
Many governments in developing countries are offering large swathes of land at rock-bottom prices for largescale mechanised farming. This is a departure from commitments made at the intergovernmental level – from the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative to the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) – which emphasised support for the crucial role of smallholder farmers, particularly women. Rather than gaining desperately needed support, smallholder farmers risk being undermined by these land deals.
In an ideal situation, rising interest in farmland should come as good news for smallscale farmers, pastoralists, and others holding rights over land. But, the Oxfam study found, the opposite is true. Local rights-holders are losing out to local elites and domestic or foreign investors because they lack the power to claim their rights effectively and to defend and advance their interests. This appeared true across the board.
Today’s very strong interest in land will not disappear. In fact, it will intensify as increase in demand is not likely to be met by the expansion of production area.
There are many strong factors that will be driving the current push into the future.
One factor would be world population, which is expected to grow from seven billion in 2011 to nine billion by 2050. As the global economy triples in size by 2050, there will be increased demand for ever more scarce natural and agricultural resources. Diets are changing towards more land-intensive products, such as animal proteins and convenience foods. The increase in demand for food will be met by land resources that are under increasing pressure from climate change, water depletion, and other resource constraints, and squeezed by biofuel production, carbon sequestration and forest conservation, timber production, and non-food crops.
Production of non-food agricultural products too is expanding, from traditional goods, such as textiles, timber, and paper, to modern products like biofuels and ‘bio-plastics’, in the face of climate change and the inevitable exhaustion of fossil fuels. Mandates, such as the European Union target of obtaining 10 per cent of transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020, mean that there is now major pressure on land for biofuel production, constituting a major cause of food price rises and food insecurity.
But it is not the Western ‘land grab’ in the developing world that is scary. In the next 20 years, more than 590,000 square miles of land globally — more than twice the size of Texas — will be gobbled up by cities, a trend that shows no signs of stopping and one that could pose threats on several levels, another team studying the problem has found.
This massive urbanisation is happening worldwide, but India, China and Africa have experienced the highest rates of urban land expansion. The study, which covered the 30 years from 1970 to 2000, found that urban growth is occurring at the highest rates in developing countries. However, it is the North America that experienced the largest increase in total urban land. Their work has been published in the opensource journal PloS ONE.
The United Nations predicts that by 2030 there will be an additional 1.47 billion people living in urban areas. These researchers went on to find that urban population growth is a significant driver of urban land change, especially in developing regions such in India and Africa. However, economic growth is also important, particularly in China.
Coastal areas would be most vulnerable to urban expansion. Where cities grow the most seem to be near coastal areas. This makes coastal areas a special area of concern because people and infrastructures are at risk to rising sea levels, flooding, hurricanes, tsunamis and other disasters. Since all over the world people live by the water, it's a trend that is unlikely to change.
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