Land grab gives food for thought

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 27 Sep 2011

In Australia and around the world, we are observing new global gold rush but today it is in pursuit of land. Governments and investors are rushing to acquire agricultural plots outside their own borders for future food supplies and as investments, heralding the rise of a new phenomenon in the developing world: the international land grab.

In an international report released last week, titled Land and Power, Oxfam revealed preliminary research that 227 million hectares – equivalent to half the agricultural land in Australia – has been sold or leased in the developing world over the last decade, mostly by international investors.

While international investment can play a vital role in development and poverty reduction, most of these land deals are marred in secrecy and actually contribute very little to developing countries’ economies. Land is often sold as unused or underdeveloped, ignoring the small-scale farmers who live on it and are left with no way of growing food and earning a living.

Among the examples in the report is a case in Uganda where more than 20,000 people were evicted, some violently, to make way for a British company New Forest Company without being provided compensation or alternative land, driving many into malnourishment and landless poverty.

One of the women said she and her husband had owned six hectares of land for 20 years which they used to feed themselves, and educate their six children by selling their surplus produce. After the eviction, they no longer have enough land to farm and rely on casual labour, and their children cannot go to school and often eat only once a day.

The precariousness of her family’s current existence is reason alone to question why there is a rush to forage the developing world for food. Oxfam believes the recent rise in land acquisitions is in part due to the 2007– 08 food prices crisis, where the cost of staple foods soared. Not only did this intensify poverty in the developing world, it led many to purchase land for speculative purposes, knowing that further price increases in the coming years were such a safe bet.

The second is an increased demand for biofuels; crops such as palm oil, sugar and jatropha that compete for land otherwise used for food. Add in to the mix a growing a global economy and population, decreased yields because of climate change and changing diets, and it becomes easy to understand why we have a food supply crisis on our hands and a mad scramble for arable land around the world.

As a major food producer, a nation debating foreign ownership of its own agricultural soil, and above all as a wealthy country, Australia should position itself the leading advocate against this damaging practice. Next month in Rome, Australian representatives will attend a meeting at the Committee for World Food Security where overseas land investment is on the agenda, and they must back tougher safeguards. International standards – including the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation Performance Standards, the Equator Principles for responsible financial investment and the Forest Stewardship Council consultation guidelines – are currently voluntary and must be strengthened.

The Australian Government should also ensure its own export financing corporation practices the Equator Principles it has agreed to implement, which highlight the importance of protecting human rights and the array of impacts that involuntary resettlement can have on communities. Australian investors who engage in offshore production must respect all existing land use rights, and seek the free, prior and informed consent of local communities before engaging in any land-related activities.

By 2050, the global demand for food will rise by 70 per cent, and the rise of land grabbing is just one of the many signals that production is not keeping pace.

James Ensor is Oxfam Australia’s Director of Public Policy. Land and Power was released as part of Oxfam’s GROW campaign which raises awareness about the world’s broken food system.

This article was published in the Australian on Tuesday September 27. For media enquiries please contact Sunita Bose on 0407 555 960.