Global trends driving 'land grab' in poor nations: activists

Sunday, January 04, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — Resource-hungry nations are snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land in poor Asian nations, in what activists say is a "land grab" that will worsen poverty and malnutrition.

Global trends including high prices for oil and commodities, the biofuels boom, and now the sweeping downturn, are spurring import-reliant countries to take action to protect their sources of food.

China and South Korea, which are both short on arable land, and Middle Eastern nations flush with petrodollars, are driving the trend to sign up rights to swathes of territory in Asia and Africa.

"Today's food and financial crises have, in tandem, triggered a new global land grab," the Spain-based agricultural rights group Grain said in a recent report.

It said that some deals were targeted at boosting food security by producing crops that would be sent back home for consumption, while others were to establish money-making plantations like palm oil and rubber.

"As a result of both trends, fertile agricultural land is being swiftly privatised and consolidated by foreign companies in some of the world's poorest and hungriest countries," it said.

In one of the biggest deals, South Korea's Daewoo Logistics said in November it would invest about 6.0 billion dollars to develop 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares) in Madagascar -- almost half the size of Belgium.

Daewoo plans to produce four million tonnes of corn and 500,000 tonnes of palm oil a year, most of which will be shipped out of impoverished Madagascar -- where the World Food Programme still provides food relief.

"We will build everything from ports and railways to markets on a barren and untouched area," said Shin Dong-Hyun, general manager of the WFP's financing and strategic planning department.

Although commodity prices have fallen from their highs earlier this year, resource-poor and heavily populated countries are still concerned about securing long-term supplies.

Walden Bello, from Bangkok-based advocacy group Focus on the Global South [and President of the advocacy group Freedom from Debt Coalition], said the looming global recession is not likely to halt the trend which he fears will worsen the lot of landless peasants.

"In a situation where global agricultural production has become so volatile and unpredictable, I would not be surprised if the Middle Eastern countries that are engaged in this would continue to push on," he told AFP.

Bello said that many of the deals were struck in dysfunctional and corruption-ridden nations, and rejected claims the land being signed away is of poor quality, and that the projects will bring jobs and improve infrastructure.

"What we're talking about is private parties using state contracts to enrich themselves," he said. "It's an intersection of corrupt governments and land-hungry nations."

In Cambodia, where the WFP also supplies aid, oil-rich Kuwait in August granted a 546-million-dollar loan in return for crop production.

Undersecretary of State Suos Yara said Cambodia was also in talks with Qatar, South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia over agricultural investments including land concessions.

"If we do this work successfully, we can get at least 3.0 billion dollars from these agricultural investments," he said.

"With the (global financial) crisis, this is a chance for Cambodia to look to the future by pushing agriculture in order to attract foreign investments."

But opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said he was suspicious about why a wealthy nation like Kuwait needed to lease land to grow rice rather then just import the grain.

"Cambodian farmers need the land," he said, urging the government to limit the area under lease and ensure Cambodia was not plundered by foreign nations.

In the Philippines, another land lease hotspot, a series of high-profile deals has clashed with long-running demands for agrarian reform including land redistribution.

"It will aggravate the problem of landlessness, the insufficiency of land for Filipino peasants," said Congressman Rafael Mariano, who also heads the Peasants' Movement of the Philippines (KMP).

However the Philippine government is undeterred and during President Gloria Arroyo's visit to Qatar in December, officials opened talks over the lease of at least 100,000 hectares of agricultural land to the emirate.

Bello said he expected these sorts of deals to increase, forcing peasants from rural areas and into cities where together with the global downturn they will add to the ranks of the unemployed.

"It's particularly explosive in those countries where you have a high degree of landlessness, like the Philippines where seven out of 10 rural people do not have access to land," he said.

In the impoverished and corrupt dictatorship of Laos, some experts estimate that between two million and three million hectares have been parcelled off in a rampant and uncontrolled process that has now been suspended by the government.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has sounded alarm over the loss of land in a country where in rural areas, every second child is malnourished and access to land for foraging of natural resources is critical.

"If the environment is changed, with the trees cut and replaced with industrial crops," said FAO representative in Laos, Serge Verniau, "they can face serious danger"