By Shalmali Guttal and Sofia Monsalve with contributions from Mary Ann Manahan and Rebecca Leonard *

When we talk about the climate change crisis, we generally refer to recent and future alterations to the Earth’s climate systems that can be attributed to human activities (1). Foremost among these activities are the burning of fossil fuels, exploitation of natural resources and production-consumption of energy and industrial goods, all of which are high emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The relentless warming of the global climate as a result of increased GHGs in the atmosphere has already led to disruptions in seasonal weather and precipitation patterns, melting glaciers, changes in hydrological cycles and an increase in extreme weather events, with serious consequences for eco-systems, agricultural production, food and water security, and the livelihoods of rural and urban poor communities throughout the world.

Land and water are central elements in the climate crisis. Industrialization and economic growth depend greatly on the exploitation of land and water, and their capture to serve energy production, mining, industry, agriculture, technology parks, tourism, recreation and urban expansion, continues unabated in every region of the world. Land cover and land use changes are the oldest global impacts of humankind and result in significant changes to the amount of carbon that is stored and released into the atmosphere. Forests and wetlands store more carbon than grasslands, which in turn store more carbon than croplands. The world’s natural forests, savannahs and wetlands have long helped maintain the global carbon cycle in balance, but their conversion to other uses has greatly diminished this crucial ecosystem service. Studies, including by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), show that land use and land use changes are responsible for over 30 percent of GHG emissions that trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere and cause global warming.

Plants, animal species and marine life are threatened or disappearing at an unprecedented pace due to the combined effects of global warming and industrial exploitation. Life at large is endangered by the decreasing availability of fresh water resources. Already, over 1 billion people live without access to safe drinking water and over a million people–mostly children–die every year from diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery and cholera related to lack of proper hygiene and safe drinking water.

IPCC assessments indicate that, globally, the negative impacts of climate change on freshwater systems are expected to be immense. From 2050 onwards, the area of land subject to increasing water stress is projected to more than double. Increased precipitation intensity and variability are projected to increase the risks of flooding and drought in many areas and negatively affect groundwater recharge, thus reducing underground water stocks. Due to changes in temperature and rain patterns, droughts have occurred more often since 1970.  Changes in water quantity and quality due to climate change are expected to result in decreased food availability and increased vulnerability of poor rural communities, especially in the arid and semi-arid tropics, and Asian and African mega-deltas. Sea levels are expected to rise, changing the lives of coastal communities, triggering an increase in internal and regional displacement–particularly in Asia and Africa–and leading to more conflicts over land and water.

Destruction caused by global warming goes beyond the physical. Consistently changing, unpredictable weather challenges local knowledge and resilience, which have been the basis of good agricultural and eco-system management in co-production with nature, and which will have to be built anew to adjust to new climatic conditions. In the transition period however, rural communities are likely to be rendered more vulnerable and dependent on external inputs and techniques, and lose precious local knowledge about food, medicinal plants, soil, water and coastal management, forest and biodiversity protection, etc.

Agriculture and fisheries are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Today, 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas in developing countries and rely on smallhold family agriculture, artisanal fisheries and pastoralism.  Regional variations notwithstanding, the overall impacts of climate change on these communities are projected to be negative. While huge areas in Russia, Canada and China are projected to turn into cropland, in tropical and semi-tropical regions, climate change will likely lead to a serious decline in agricultural yields, accelerate farmland and coastline degradation, increase desertification and displace millions of smallhold producers.

Agriculture and other land-based sectors are also major anthropogenic emitters of GHGs globally: agriculture accounts for about 13.5 percent of emissions, although counting the transportation, processing and distribution of agricultural goods, the figure will be higher; land use change and forestry represent 17.4 percent (2), and; deforestation is responsible for 25-30 percent of global GHG emissions (3) although recent research shows that the combined contribution of deforestation, forest degradation and peatland emissions accounts for about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, about the same as the transportation sector (4).  Agricultural land occupies about 40-50 percent of the world’s total land surface, and accounts for 60-80 percent of global nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions and 50-55 percent of methane (CH4) emissions (5). Livestock production accounts for 70 percent of agricultural land use and feed-crop production uses 33 percent of total arable land. An FAO report estimates that counting GHG emissions from commercial feed crop cultivation, transportation of feed-crop and animal products, enteric fermentation, and CH4 and N2O emissions from manure, the livestock sector alone is responsible for 18 percent of GHG emissions (FAO, 2006). Studies indicate that anthropogenic GHG emissions from agriculture are rising because of increased use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and increased livestock raising, especially cattle.  Urban infrastructure, landfills, waste disposal, sewage and biomass burnings are also important GHG emitters.

However, not all agriculture accelerates global warming. According to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2009), the highest GHG emissions from agriculture are associated with industrial agriculture and intensive monocultures, which include medium to large scale, chemically-intensive production of cash, food and bio-energy crops, plantations and industrial livestock production.  Such agriculture is resource intensive, reconfigures the way land and water are used, and has complex and multi-dimensional impacts on forests, eco-systems, watersheds, climate, food security and livelihoods.

Agricultural soils are both sources and sinks for carbon. In tropical rainforest regions, global trade and the intensification of market economies encourage forest destruction to make way for industrial croplands and pastures for the cattle industry. Brazil experienced a deforestation of 93,700 km² between 2001 and 2004, in great part because of rising global demand for soybean and beef. Particularly endangered is the Brazilian cerrado, a dryland area that is recognised as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.  Over 50 percent of the cerrado has been transformed to serve intensive agriculture and livestock production. Similarly, Southeast Asia lost 23,000 km² of forests between 1990 and 2000 for timber harvest and agricultural expansion. Four-fifths of the Indonesian rainforest has disappeared since the 1960s, lost mainly to large palm oil, rubber and other monocultures. In Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua, the speed of deforestation is estimated at the equivalent to the loss of 400 football fields per day, the highest rate of deforestation in the world. 

Industrial agriculture and monocultures destroy natural processes needed to store carbon in soil organic matter and replace them by chemical processes from fertilizers and pesticides, the production of which consume large amounts of fossil fuels.  They also destroy important landscape features such as live fences, woodlots, catchment areas, hedge-rows, patches of natural forests and other natural habitats that provide crucial ecosystem services such as recharging aquifers and watersheds, retaining soil nutrients and sequestering carbon.

In developing countries, the daily food needs of majority of rural families are met primarily through localized production and foraging activities by women. The depletion of natural resources undermines women’s knowledge of traditional uses of wild plants as food, fodder and medicine and increases their workload in meeting the family’s food and health needs. The intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides destroy biodiversity, pollute soils, rivers, waterways, subterranean water sources and springs, and gravely affect the health of communities and eco-systems. When wild food sources are destroyed, rivers and wells poisoned, and fish and small marine animals disappear, rural communities are left with practically no food and water sources.

The shift from forests and diverse, smallholder food crops to industrial agriculture exacerbates the inequality of access to land and natural resources among communities and between men and women, especially in the case of bio-energy and other high value cash crops. As forest and agricultural land are expropriated for industrial farms and plantations, local communities are squeezed onto smaller and less fertile parcels of land, and compelled to rely on a smaller resource base for food and income. Fresh water reserves are monopolized and in some cases exhausted, creating and exacerbating water scarcity. This has sparked conflicts over water among local populations, especially peasants, fisherfolk and indigenous communities who are deprived of their rights to water. Particularly affected are the rights of indigenous peoples to control, use, administer and preserve ancestral territories. Increasing and aggressive land purchases by those with money have driven up land prices and created booming land markets in which impoverished smallhold producers become easy prey to land speculators and middle-men.

Families pushed off their lands are forced to move further into forest/wooded areas and clear new lands for cultivation, where they compete with previously settled communities for access to a shrinking resource base. Large-scale, commercial plantations pull migrants—who tend to be displaced from elsewhere–to work as wage labour, usually poorly paid. Infrastructure established to serve industrial agriculture such as roads, transportation, electrification, etc., spurs urbanization and facilitates the penetration of market forces into all elements of the eco-systems.

The global food and financial crises have transformed agricultural lands and production infrastructure into valuable strategic assets. Wealthy countries unable to meet their food needs through domestic production–for example, Japan, South Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Libya and Saudi Arabia—are acquiring massive tracts of farmland (and the water sources that lie in them) on long leases in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their aim is to secure food supplies for their own domestic populations and raw materials for their agrifood industries. At the same time, agribusiness and finance corporations—for example, Morgan Stanley, AIG, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Renaissance Capital and Landkom—have also been acquiring lands (and water sources) in the South to secure returns on future investments. For troubled financiers, land, water and agricultural infrastructure are relatively safe havens: given climate change, a growing world population and projected food shortages, securing control over future food supplies holds the promise of tremendous profits.

Such land deals undermine biodiversity, environmental and human health, and the abilities of societies to be food secure through their own means. Even if states acquire farmlands, they outsource actual food production to agribusiness/agri-food corporations.  Private corporations that acquire lands tend to invest in crops that fetch maximum profits: soybean, wheat, corn, and other bio-energy crops. Not only do rural communities lose access to local sources of food, water, medicinal sources and income, but also, smallhold diverse farms, forests, open pastures and other commons are consolidated into large industrial agriculture monocultures that perpetuate ecologically destructive production practices, increase GHG emissions and accelerate global warming.

Market-based instruments such as emissions trading and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) have been promoted through the Kyoto Protocol and by several international agencies as ways to address the climate crisis. Through these schemes, Northern countries and their corporations (responsible for the bulk of GHGs) can buy “emission rights” from Southern countries that are at lower levels of industrialization, and finance carbon sinks (including tree plantations) and “sustainable development” in the South as a lucrative alternative to reducing emissions in the North.  The World Bank has aggressively assumed the lead in ‘carbon finance’ schemes through, among others, the Prototype Carbon Fund, Community Development Carbon Funds, BioCarbon Fund, Umbrella Carbon Facility and Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. Many of these programmes claim to reduce GHG emissions in developing countries from deforestation by selling forest carbon credits in the international emissions market. On November 3, the World Bank signed an agreement with the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project to purchase soil carbon credits through its BioCarbon Fund from Kenyan farmers (6).

Significant among forest carbon initiatives is the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which aims ostensibly to reward governments and forest owners in developing countries for protecting forests instead of cutting them down, thus reducing GHG emissions. The World Bank is actively supporting REDD, as are several international environmental conservation agencies and private carbon trading companies. REDD watchers point out that the UN definition of forests does not distinguish between forests and plantations, leaving the door open for private investors and governments to convert forests to tree plantations and still get paid for it.

REDD has serious implications for indigenous peoples, rural communities, forests and biodiversity.  A particularly contentious issue is tenure: who owns the forests, and who should be rewarded for protecting and not cutting forests?  Despite the euphemistic language adopted, projects for the “conservation and sustainable management of forests” frequently entail evicting local communities from forest areas and allowing logging in particular forest sections, and, “enhancement of forest carbon stocks” can include industrial tree plantations that diminish environmental quality in numerous ways. Governments of the South commonly claim ownership over all resources within their sovereign territories and will strike deals wherever they get maximum gains, whether in REDD programmes, or with logging, energy, mining or agribusiness companies.  Claims of rural communities, including indigenous peoples, to use and make decisions about the forests that they have long stewarded, are not recognized by governments or the environmental conservation industry. REDD does not uphold crucial human rights instruments such as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the concept of Free Prior Informed Consent. Indigenous Peoples and other rural communities fear that REDD and associated initiatives will further advance land grabbing and provide incentives to governments and large landholders to apply a “you-pay-or-I-cut” approach to every hectare of forest land that they succeed in wresting from indigenous peoples and landless farmers.  In both CDM and REDD projects, lands, watersheds and forests are valued more in monetary terms rather than in terms of the varieties of life that that they sustain.

To date, however, none of these schemes have resulted in significant net reductions of GHG emissions, nor have they halted deforestation. Instead, the climate has been financialized, and land/forests are being economically manipulated to allow investors to profit from the climate crisis. Large infrastructure, energy and industrial projects—oftentimes of dubious environmental quality–are able to secure international financing while wealthy countries gain access to abundant cheap “carbon credits” that help them avoid painful emission reductions at home. Equally important, trading forest and soil carbon will not reduce global warming; on the contrary, it will create greater incentives and opportunities for the commodification of forests in international carbon markets. Bubbles and instability in these markets can render precious natural resources vulnerable to market risks, with falling prices creating perverse incentives to withdraw forest protection.

Another much lauded panacea to global warming is agrofuels, which continue to be promoted by governments and agribusinesses as an environmentally friendly, clean alternative to fossil fuels, without comprehensive assessment of their social, economic and environmental costs. The production of agrofuels — for example, corn, sugar cane, oil palm, soybean and jatropha monocultures–involve the restructuring of land use, displacing and dispossessing rural communities from their livelihood sources, expanding the industrial agricultural frontier at the expense of forests and native eco-systems, polluting water and further degrading soils. They also divert precious farmlands away from food production to the production of bio-energy crops, which are acquired by national and transnational corporations often in violation of customary land governance and national environmental laws. 

Agrofuel production is spurred by financial incentives provided to the private sector by nations that seek to maintain high consumption lifestyles despite the costs to communities and environments elsewhere. For example, the United States, European Union (EU) and other OECD countries have established mandatory targets, policies and financial support to encourage first- and second-generation agrofuels (7) production. They are also investing heavily in agrofuels related research and experimentation, including the development and testing of genetically modified crops and trees. The EU has set a binding target to replace 20 per cent of fossil fuels and 10 per cent of transport fuel with biomass, hydropower, wind and solar by 2020.

As wealthy nations meet their “clean” energy targets, hundreds of millions of smallhold farmers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples are being pushed off lands and forests that they depend on for survival. All lands claimed by corporate acquisition are already in use by local communities in some form or other. Governments and corporations may argue that many non-forest lands converted to agrofuel plantations are “wastelands” or “marginal lands” and need to be put to productive use.  In actuality, however, these lands are likely to have been under communal or traditional customary use for generations, and are crucial for the livelihoods of local communities. Women, who are the world’s main food producers, are the most prone to work on so called “marginal lands” because of traditional-historical gender discrimination, and more easily divested of their lands than men.

The diversion of arable land and forests (degraded or not) towards commercial agrofuel production has grave implications for people who already spend over half their incomes on food. The global food crisis is at least in part due to the heady rush towards agrofuel and animal feed production. Recent studies show that converting native ecosystems into farms for agrofuels will increase global warming rather than mitigate it. The carbon released by converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands outweighs the “carbon savings” from agrofuels. For example, conversions for corn or sugarcane (ethanol), or palms or soybeans (biodiesel) release 17 to 420 times more carbon than the annual savings from replacing fossil fuels. Scientific analyses also show that not all agrofuels are “clean” or “efficient” energy sources. Many ethanol agrofuels are proving to be far less “efficient” than other fuels for every unit of energy produced. The production of agrofuel crops (particularly for ethanol) and the fuel itself are chemical, water and even fossil fuel intensive, and result in land, soil and water contamination, and destruction of agricultural and natural biodiversity.

Official debates about climate change and hunger tend to favour technological and market-based solutions instead of addressing socio-political structural issues such as landlessness, highly concentrated ownership of agricultural lands and water, and industrial modes of production and consumption which are at the core of the crises. The climate and food crises have been transformed into opportunities for corporate profits, and land, water and other natural resources are being monetized, reassessed and exploited as never before.

The returns from industrial agriculture provide high, short-term returns for corporations, rich investors and wealthy classes, in contrast with agro-ecological peasant agriculture, where the returns largely go to local communities, society at large and future generations. Research shows that smallhold producers on family farms produce over two-thirds of the staple foods in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Through foraging, cropping, fishing, pastoralism and localized processing activities, smallholder production is the primary source of a wide variety of foods for cash poor families in rural and urban areas. Research also shows that small farms, especially those based on traditional polycultures, are far more productive than large farms in terms of total outputs, which include grains, fibres, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and animal products, all grown in the same fields or gardens. Smallhold polycultures tend to use land, water, biodiversity, energy and other agricultural resources far more efficiently than industrial agriculture and monocultures, are far less polluting, and far more climate-friendly. They provide vital eco-system services and have great potential to sequester carbon in above-ground and soil biomass. In terms of converting the earth’s natural wealth into “outputs,” society gains much more from smallhold producers than from agribusiness and corporate agrochemical operations.

Most climate change models predict that damages will disproportionally affect the regions populated by smallhold producers, especially rainfed agriculturalists in the South.  At the same time, the diversified cropping practices of traditional agro-ecosystems make them less vulnerable to massive losses during natural disasters. The traditional technologies and knowledge of smallhold producers, pastoralists, fishers and indigenous communities are a veritable storehouse of lessons in adaptive capacity and resilience to weather and climate change. These capacities and knowledge will be greatly diminished, if not altogether lost, if land conversions continue at the current pace.

Global efforts to reduce GHG emissions cannot afford to follow ‘business as usual’ or rely on technological gimmicks and market-driven initiatives. The recent decision by governments at the tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya, Japan, that in the absence of effective, regulatory mechanisms and in accordance with the precautionary approach, no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, is a welcome step.

Corporate control over land, forests and water sources must be urgently dismantled, and states and societies must recognize the fundamental rights of local populations to govern and steward the commons. Land, forests and water must be protected as common societal wealth, and security of resource tenure for smallhold farmers, fishers, pastoralists and indigenous communities should be ensured through comprehensive agrarian reform. Public policies and resources must be redirected towards supporting land-use and agricultural practices that cool the planet, nurture biodiversity and save energy.  These will check global warming, achieve food sovereignty and reduce distress out-migration from rural to urban areas.

* Shalmali Guttal is a senior associate with Focus on the Global South and Sofia Monsalve is coordinator for land issues with FIAN International. Rebecca Leonard and Mary Ann Manahan are researchers with Focus on the Global South.
** This article was first published in Development, Volume 54 Number 1 Global Land Grabs. Go to for full details on how to subscribe. SID Membership includes online access to Development (membership fees range from €5 to €20). See for details.

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(1) According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change “Climate change” means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods. (Article 1(2) UNFCCC).
(2) The Fourth Assessment Report, IPCC 2007, Geneva, Switzerland.
(4) Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation entry, Wikipedia,, accessed 18 March 2011.
(5) percent5Fsr/?src=/climate/ipcc/emission/076.htm and
(7) First-generation agrofuels are mainly ethanol from grains, sugar crops and biodiesel from oil seeds (such as palm and jatropha) or from recycled cooking oil. Second-generation agrofuels are made mainly from lignocellulosic materials such as wood and straw.