The land grab trend has come under heavy scrutiny since mid-2008. On the one hand, investment in agricultural land is thought to be an answer for boosting food production in a world plagued by food shortages; on the other hand, many claim that this large-scale, private-sector-led approach conflicts with the urgency of increasing domestic food supplies in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries.
No matter how convincing the claim that the global land grab will bring much-needed agricultural investment to poor countries, evidence shows there is simply no place for the small farmer in the vast majority of these land grab situations. Most land deals consider the local population only to the extent that large-scale agriculture will create employment for subsistence farmers and rural land-dwellers. However, the extension of employment to local farmers to work on industrial, plantation-style farms effectively implies the forcing of subsistence farmers off their land to make room for large-scale farms producing food for other countries. Not only does land grabbing mean that farmers will lose their land, but these lands will be transformed from smallholdings or communal lands into large industrial estates connected to far-off markets.
Another danger of the land grab movement is that commercial land deals are coming into direct conflict with land reform efforts in many developing countries. Conflict between rural land dwellers and commercial interests is not a new phenomenon. Mounting demand for land due to demographic and economic growth and resource depletion increasingly leads rural areas to be incorporated into market economies, and therefore governments often experience pressure to implement land reform new policies that give the poor secure access to land, thereby allowing them to pursue their livelihoods without fear of harassment or eviction. The task of achieving food security and the implementation of land reform policies in developing countries are in extricable linked. There are 1.5 billion small-scale farmers in the world who live on less than 2 ha of land secure and equitable access to and control over land allows these farmers to produce food, which is vital for their own food security as well as that of rural populations throughout the developing world. The current land grab—characterized by unprecedented pressures on land resources and increasing demand within land markets—is placing new tensions on land tenure systems.
A dangerous element of the land grab trend is the shift from domestic to foreign control over food resources and food-producing lands. Land deals diminish the possibility of reaching food self-sufficiency for poor nations and some view land concessions as governments out-sourcing food at the expense of their most food-insecure citizens. Importantly, most of the target or “host” countries themselves are net food importers or even emergency food aid recipients For instance, Madagascar and the Sudan still receive food aid relief from the World Food Program; several months ago, Cambodia received US$ 35 million in food assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) (Haralambous et al. 2009). For nations experiencing social unrest and high rates of hunger and poverty, it is hard to conceive that fertile land is being conceded to foreign countries instead of being used to boost domestic production. Kenya has received much attention as the Qatari government is to fund a US$ 3.4 billion port off the coast of Kenya in exchange for a lease of 40,000 ha of land on which Qatar will grow crops (Montenegro 2009). According to land law, this area belongs to the local community; however, pastoralists and farmers in the Tana delta are largely illiterate and unaware of their legal rights (Montenegro 2009). This deal seems unthinkable given that Kenya is currently in a state of “food emergency” according to the FAO, which reports Kenya as experiencing “exceptional shortfall in aggregate food production and supplied” (see Table 2.1). Recent drought has left 10 million people hungry and post-election violence in 2008 displaced thou-sands of farmers throughout the country’s most fertile regions; reportedly, 30% of Kenyans now face food shortage (Kilner 2009).
It is difficult to visualize a win-win scenario when governments do not prioritize domestic food supply or local production over foreign investment and production for export. Evidence shows that deals often lack transparency and are subject to mismanagement by governments. An extensive May 2009 report found that many countries do not have sufficient mechanisms to protect local rights and take account of local interests, livelihoods, and welfare (Vermeulen and Cotula 2009). Moreover, local communities are rarely adequately informed about land concessions made to private companies (e.g., Cotula et al. 2008). Insecure local land rights, inaccessible registration procedures, vaguely defined productive use requirements, legislative gaps, and other factors too often undermine the position of local people. Without the careful assessment of local contexts, including recognizing existing land uses and claims, securing land rights for rural communities, and involving local people in negotiations, land acquisitions will inevitably produce adverse affects for local food production and rural livelihoods.
The global food and financial crises have made land reform an even more urgent task, but land deals threaten such reforms. In the Philippines, for instance, a series of high-profile deals have clashed with long-running demands for agrarian reform, including land redistribution (Qatar Land Deal 2009). Reportedly the Philippines finally began to push a land reform bill, the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill (GARB), through the House in May 2009 (Padilla 2009), but this development has foreign
investors worried. For instance, Saudi executives representing big agricultural businesses have raised concerns about the Philippine agrarian reform; reportedly, Saudi investors were planning to acquire thousands of hectares of land for planting, processing and raising livestock and poultry, and some also expressed the possibility of planting cassava and sugarcane (Cayon 2009).In the Philippines, implementing agrarian reform has the potential to stimulate domestic economic activity and help address the problem of massive job dislocation. Those directly and indirectly involved in agricultural production in the Philippines comprise around 70% of the labor force, and their combined production accounts for almost 75% of the domestic economy. However, in the absence of agrarian reform, a huge portion of the labor force is thus denied access to gainful, secure, and sustainable employment. As a consequence, nearly 70% of the poor live in the countryside, and around 90% of the rural population lives below the poverty line (Cayon 2009).
The discussion of land reform in relation to the land grab trend has received little media or scholarly attention. In many cases, land reform is critical to achieving the rural development necessary for domestic food production.