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New Agriculturist: Book reviews - The Landgrabbers - The new fight over who owns the Earth
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The Landgrabbers - The new fight over who owns the Earth

The landgrabbers

By Fred Pearce
Published by Eden Project Books
Website: www.transworldbooks.co.uk
2012, 379pp, ISBN 978 1 90581 174 8 (Pb), £20

Access to land has always been the key to human survival. Whether for hunting, cropping or grazing livestock, there has long been competition for suitable land; now, with good land increasingly at a premium as erosion, desertification and inundation reduce acreage in the face of rising population, the economically strong are safeguarding their future by acquiring land in countries that cannot afford to relinquish its ownership. The buyers are foreign governments and investors, the sellers invariably governments who see land sale and leasing as short term financial benefit to their country, and often to senior members of government. The terms of agreements are seldom transparent and rumour proliferates, but one certainty is that the future prospects of the poorest are impoverished as they are cleared from lands on which they crop, graze and gather fuel. "Chunks of land the size of small countries are changing hands for a song," writes Fred Pearce.

To write The Landgrabbers - The new fight over who owns the Earth, Pearce has travelled widely and dug deep to expose an international scandal that threatens many with tragedy. He details the varied actors and scenarios that comprise this burgeoning transformation of land access and future food security. As Pearce asks in his first chapter, "Is it ethical for a country such as Ethiopia, repeatedly hit by famine, to give up thousands of square kilometres of its best land to foreigners, with the promise that they can take the produce home or sell it around the world?" The government of South Sudan, the ink scarcely dry on its Independence documents, has been negotiating to lease hundreds of thousands of hectares to potential investors that include Abu Dhabi and Egypt.

Kenya, Liberia, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Cambodia and Mozambique are some of the other countries featured as willing sellers, while buyers include governments or nationals from China, South Korea, Russia, UK, US, and Gulf States. "One assessment at the end of 2009 found that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states were responsible for a third of the land purchased, leased or under offer to foreigners by poorer countries," writes Pearce, adding, "The Gulf's largest equity company said in 2008 that it had acquired 320,000 hectares of 'barren' farmland to grow rice and wheat in Pakistan. If even a fraction of this goes ahead, the implications could be grim for small Pakistani farmers, most of whom are sharecropping tenants of feudal families."

Apologists for land acquisition, including respected scientists and agronomists in the West, maintain that large scale, mechanised and intensive agriculture is the only route to meeting the yawning food deficit that another 2 billion people and rising dietary aspirations are presenting: small, subsistence farmers have not the knowledge, skills nor capital to match the potential of 'modern' agriculture. This is despite 60 million African farmers currently providing some 80 per cent of the continent's food and Asian small farmers consistently achieving higher yields than large scale producers. What holds back small farmer production is not ignorance or sloth but access to capital and reliable markets, a situation too few governments address.

This is an important book and deserves wide readership and discussion. However, while there remain eager buyers - Gulf sheikhs, Chinese state corporations, Wall Street speculators, Russian oligarchs, and Indian microchip billionaires - and willing sellers - governments and feudal landlords - 'landgrabbing', as described so powerfully by Fred Pearce, will continue.

Date published: September 2012


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