Geography Compass

Foreign land investments or ‘land grabs’?

by Magali Bonne-Moreau

Thirty million hectares of farmland are lost every year as a result of environmental degradation, urbanisation, conversion to industrial use, and speculation on farmland, also known as ‘land grabbing,’ according to a recent report by Olivier de Schutter, the U.N. Expert on the Right to Food. ‘Land grabs’ describe the acquisition of large tracts of arable land in developing countries by cash-rich countries with inadequate land and water resources, such as the Gulf States, or with large populations and food security concerns, such as India or China, or for projects that seek to mitigate climate change, like the REDD scheme, as well as for biofuel production.

In the past, foreign acquisition of land in developing countries was often associated with private enterprises involved in cash-crop schemes. Following the 2007 global food price crisis, land deals have increased as a result of food security concerns; some of these are presented in an IFPRI policy brief (2009). Saudi Arabia is used as a case study by Lippman (2010) to discuss the issues around ‘investment in food supply’ by a country that is highly dependent on imported food. In contrast, a Guardian article (2010) presents the African perspective: as a result of these land investments, many farmers in countries with weak governance and a lack of formally recognised land tenure find themselves landless, further marginalised, and in a situation of food vulnerability. This is a strong paradox. In Ethiopia, more than 13 million people need food aid, but at least 3 million hectares of its most fertile land are provided to foreign investors for agriculture. In Madagascar, although the deal fell through in 2009, the South Korean company Daewoo offered to purchase nearly half of the country’s arable land to grow corn and palm oil.

The issues are complex. If done responsibly, foreign land investments could promote local employment, build agricultural capacity and increase crop yields. However, problems of dispossession, displacements, environmental degradation and local food vulnerability are widespread in many countries involved in these deals.

Read Access to Land and the Right to Food, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food presented at the 65th General Assembly of the United Nations, 21 October 2010.

Read Lippman’s article (2010): Saudi Arabia’s Quest for “Food Security”. Middle East Policy. 17(1), pp. 90-98

Read The Guardian’s article (7 March 2010): “How food and water are driving a 21st-century African land grab”

Look at the IFPRI table (2009): “Land Grabbing by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities”

For a larger overview of the topic, read Jarosz (2009) “Energy, Climate Change, Meat, and Markets: Mapping the Coordinates of the Current World Food Crisis” in Geography Compass 3(6), pp. 2065-2083

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