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Land grabbing: the new tragedy of the commons

A contributed article written for Just Conservation by environmental journalist and writer Fred Pearce

"Poor rural Africa is one of the last great unfenced areas of the planet, where humans and wildlife still often live side by side. The World Bank calls the four million square kilometres of savannah grasslands in Africa, between the rainforest and the deserts, “the world’s last large reserve of underused land". The model for what the World Bank thinks should happen to the African savannah is to be found in Brazil – in the cerrado, a huge region of grassland and bush that rings the Amazon. Thirty years ago, it was largely empty, probably the most biodiverse grassland in the world. Now it is being gobbled up faster than the Amazon."

Driving through the bush of Gambella in southwestern Ethiopia, the track ahead was suddenly alive with large animals. It soon became clear they were antelope. As we drew closer, their numbers grew, and they began running.  They numbered many thousands, with warthogs in among them, darting through the tall wet swamp grass and heading toward the Baro River, a tributary of the Nile. 

Mesmerised, it was a while before I noticed that, not far away on the horizon, there were bulldozers and plumes of smoke.  A farm was being created out of the bush.  A giant farm, the size of Luxembourg, on land handed over by the Ethiopian prime minister to an Indian king of agribusiness, Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi. 

The antelope were white-eared kob.  Most of them came from neighbouring South Sudan, travelling across the open bush at the end of the dry season, in search of Gambella’s open water and wetlands. There were more than a million, along with a scattering of elephants, another endangered antelope called the Nile lechwe, and the giant shoebill stork.  These animals were the main reason for the creation back in 1974 of the Gambella National Park, which also contains hundreds of baboons, bushbucks, duikers, hartebeest, water bucks, buffalo, reedbuck and roan. 

But Karuturi is now taking over parts of the park, paying a rent of £200 a day for the first 100,000 hectares of his farm.  This bush will soon be transformed — and the future of the great migration, probably second in size only to the wildebeest of the Serengeti, is in grave doubt. 

After my visit, Ethiopia’s prime minister was dining with his Indian counterpart in Addis.  Lauding the Karuturi investment, he said: “We want to develop our land to feed ourselves rather than admire the beauty of fallow fields while we starve.”  His UK ambassador Berhanu Kebede wrote in the Guardian newspaper in London that Karuturi and the other new farms “bring huge benefits.  Not just the jobs, houses, schools, clinics and other infrastructure, but knowledge transfer, skills training, tax revenue and other benefits to the workers and to the country as a whole.” 

I saw none of these benefits.  But, even if they happen, the questions raised by such developments are huge.  Is it ethical for a country such as Ethiopia, repeatedly hit by famine, to give up thousands of square kilometres of its best farmland to foreigners, with the promise that they can take the produce back home or sell it round the world?  Is the concentration of land in fewer hands an essential part of the economic development that the poor world so desperately needs?  Or will it create a new underclass of pauperised landless peasants?  And what of the wildlife? 

The bush of Gambella was just one stop on a global journey I undertook to research my recently published book The Landgrabbers (Eden Project Books).  But it was there, in one of the most remote places in the whole of Africa, that I saw most starkly the black heart of a great new invasion of the continent – an invasion of land grabbers, intent on usurping the land, displacing wildlife and the continent’s human inhabitants alike. 

There are hundreds of land grabbers with ambitions as big as Karuturi.  Millions of hectares are being gobbled up across the plains of Africa, but also in the paddy fields of southeast Asia, the forests of South America, and the steppes of Russia. 

The raiders are various.  They include the sovereign funds of the Gulf oil sheikhdoms, Chinese entrepreneurs, jumpy governments worried about food security in an ever more populated world, and Wall Street and City of London speculators looking for the next big new thing.  

The victims are wildlife and the poor peasants whose title to the land they occupy is uncertain, and whose power to prevent their governments selling it or leasing it from beneath them is very small. 

People like Omot Ochan, a member of the Anuak tribe in Gambella.  I met Omot sitting in the forest on an old waterbuck skin, eating corn from a calabash gourd.  Behind him was a straw hut, where bare-breasted women and bare-footed children were busy cooking fish on an open fire. 

They had been in that forest for at least ten generations, Omot told me.   “All round here is ours.  For two days’ walk.  When my father died, he said don’t leave the land.  We made a promise. We can’t give it to the foreigners.” 

But his occupation of the forest is doomed.  “Two years ago, the company began chopping down the forest, and the bees went away,” he said. “We used to sell honey. We used to hunt with dogs, but after the farm came the animals disappeared.  Now we only have fish.”   With the company also draining the wetlands, the fish will soon be gone too.  

In researching my book, I followed the trail from the board rooms and ministries to the fields and forests where I meet numerous such victims of globalised land grab.  There were herders on the edge of the Sahara, who found their cattle trails turned into tarmac roads, and their pastures fenced in for sugar farms.   Paraguayan indigenous people ejected from their land by Brazilian ranchers.  Cambodians run out of town by their own senators, running sugar to Tate & Lyle. 

Two global events have triggered this new hunger for land.  First, the world food crisis that began in 2008.  Droughts and rising demand, coupled with a bubble in biofuels, have created food shortages and soaring food prices.  Food riots have toppled governments.  The spectre of Malthusian famines has returned.  Major food importing nations like Saudi Arabia, South Korea and China have scoured the world for cheap land in foreign countries where they can grow crops and ensure future food supplies for their people. 

The other kick-start to land grabbing was the banking crisis.  Suddenly, putting money into financial derivatives that nobody understood didn’t seem such a good bet.  Investors have switched to more physical assets.  And, seeing the food crisis, they figure that farmland is a good bet.  Talismanic investor George Soros said: "I am convinced farm land is going to be one of the best investments of our time.”  Many have followed him into the fields.

Since 2008, investment banks and hedge funds have been fencing in African land, which is the cheapest, and cornering the market in everything from Brazilian soya fields to Chinese poultry farms. 

I found British investors grabbing land in more than 20 Africa countries.  Top food combine Associated British Foods has sugar plantations in six African countries though its South African subsidiary Illovo, which has in the past decade become one of the world’s biggest sugar producers.

General Sir Redmond Watt, who commanded British land forced until 2008 and presided over the Queen Mother’s funeral, until recently chaired a company with more than 200,000 hectares of bush in the former French colony of Guinea.  One village sold its land for £3.

Often land grabs are really water grabs.  Food production in a fifth of the world today is limited by water rather than land shortages.  I found Illovo and Chinese firms developing sugar schemes that will soon be abstracting several cubic kilometres of water each year from the River Niger.  The abstraction points are just upstream of the river’s inland delta, a vast natural wetland the size of Belgium where a million people live by fishing, gathering the rich lake grasses, farming and rearing livestock on the wet pastures.  Hundreds of square kilometres will dry out as a result.  The wetland will die and tens of thousands of livelihoods will be lost.

In Kenya, I met angry locals who have been fenced out of the Yala swamp, on the shores of Lake Victoria.  The cause is an evangelical American real estate entrepreneur Calvin Burgess.  A man who made his money running privatised American prisons has now bought his own piece of Africa.  He calls it Dominion Farm.  He is draining the swamp and taking its water for irrigating rice. 

Poor rural Africa is one of the last great unfenced areas of the planet, where humans and wildlife still often live side by side.  The World Bank calls the four million square kilometres of savannah grasslands in Africa, between the rainforest and the deserts, “the world’s last large reserve of underused land". 

The model for what the World Bank thinks should happen to the African savannah is to be found in Brazil – in the cerrado, a huge region of grassland and bush that rings the Amazon.  Thirty years ago, it was largely empty, probably the most biodiverse grassland in the world.  Now it is being gobbled up faster than the Amazon. 

As foreign businessmen arrive and take the cerrado for cultivation, Brazilian ranchers and farmers are becoming land grabbers in their own right.  They are crossing the border into Paraguay, invading the fearsome Chaco, one of the last great wildernesses in South America, a thorn forest which Edinburgh botanist Toby Pennington calls “a museum of diversity, a refuge over millions of years of species adapted to its unique environment”.  It is home to giant anteaters, tapirs, maned wolves, eight species of armadillo, and the Chacoan peccary, a prehistoric pig-like creature that was known only by fossilised skeletons till someone stumbled on a live animal out there in 1975. 

Flying over the Chaco, I saw huge ranches, each covering hundreds of square kilometres, all cleared in the past five years. 

I travelled through the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where two Asian oligarchs run two of the world’s largest pulp mills.  They have pulped around 10,000 square kilometres of forest so far.  They act as if the forest they invade is empty, when of course it is not.  But where locals object to their takeover, the response can be ruthless.  According to local reports in December 2008, helicopters from one of the companies launched fire bombs on a forest village, following a land dispute. 

Environmentalists are battling these companies in a last ditch effort to save the forests of Sumatra – for their native elephants and tigers and rhinos.  But sometimes I am no fan of environmentalists either. 

Too often I have found conservationists staging their own land grabs – buying up remaining wild lands for conservation.  That may be a good thing.  But private conservation fiefdoms, some the size of small countries, are often as contentious locally as any other form of land grab. 

Some reserves are the private playgrounds of super-rich nature lovers.  Doug Tompkins and his wife once sold the world backpacks and outdoor fashion, often bearing the Patagonia brand.  Then they decided to buy into the real thing.  Their piece of Patagonia is the size of Northern Ireland. 

The Benetton clothing family of Italy owns a similar sized estate there, which has been involved in conflicts with the local Mapuche people, who claim the land.  The “Moonies” church has amassed an estate covering 8000 square kilometres of former ranch land in one of the world’s largest swamps, the Pantanal on the border between Paraguay and Brazil. 

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon calls his New Hope Ranch “the best place to practice heavenly life on Earth, because it is so undeveloped and protected from the evils of civilisation.”  But I met tribal people in Paraguay who say he won’t let them visit their ancestral graves on his land.  So much for practising heavenly life, you might say.

Green grab can be big business.  A fifth of Kenya today is given over to national parks for foreign tourists.  Often custodians of the land, like these Maasai pastoralists, are excluded -- even though they and their cattle happily shared the land with wildlife for centuries.  

In Tanzania, one big chunk of the Serengeti plain is set aside for the exclusive use of hunters from the United Arab Emirates.  This area is so much not a part of Tanzania that even its airwaves have been taken over.  If you drive anywhere near, your mobile phone will beep to welcome you to UAE.

Don’t get me wrong.  Conservation is clearly vital in our crowded world.  But where this is done at the expense of the original inhabitants -- and when those inhabitants have proved good custodians of the land -- this is both unjust and a recipe for conflict. 

Many wildlife reserves in Africa are the same places that were set aside for hunting in the early 20th century.  Safaris were a craze then, made popular by ex-US president Teddy Roosevelt went on a year-long expedition through east Africa in 1909, during which he sent home more than 10,000 carcasses.  The new safaris bring foreigners toting cameras rather than guns.  But to the locals, they can look much the same.

This angers me because for conservationists to make enemies of the people who should be their friends, the traditional inhabitants of the wild lands, makes no sense. They need to work together to fight what looks like the final enclosure of the planet.  This is a new "tragedy of the commons", in which millions of peasant farmers, hunters and pastoralists are eased out, and the last wild lands are privatised and fenced in. 

Perhaps peasant farming is doomed.  Some say only big farming with big kit can feed the world.  I disagree.  Investing in small farmers is the key, rather than taking their farms, fencing off their land and packing them off to the cities.   Africa’s future lies in helping its smallholders find new crops, new markets and new confidence.

Here is another truth.  The world already grows enough food to feed ten billion people.  A billion people go hungry not because there is no food, but because we cannot distribute equitable what we have, and because too many people are too poor to buy it.  Making them poorer doesn’t look to me like a good place to start.

Land grabbing, I believe, has nothing to do with feeding the world, and everything to do with profit-taking.  I am not against business; I am not against investment.  But food security for the world need not be in conflict with justice for the world’s poor or protection of the last wild areas.  They can and should be in harmony.

Fred Pearce is the Environmental Consultant of the New Scientist magazine, a contributor to the Guardian and other newspapers as well as the author of numerous books on Environmental issues. His latest book is The Landgrabbers, Published in the UK by Eden Project Books, and in the US by Beacon Press.


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