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The global farms race

The global farms race

Edited by Michael Kugelman and Susan L. Levenstein
Published by Island Press
Website: www.islandpress.org
2013, 237pp, ISBN 978 1 61091 187 0 (Pb) US$25

'Landgrabbing', the acquisition of farmland through lease or purchase by foreign investors, has become an emotive issue in the media and several books have been written on the subject. The global farms race offers a more dispassionate view, pointing out that land acquisition by foreigners has a long history and that it can offer benefits to the host country. The two editors and 15 authors write short, succinct chapters on their area of knowledge.

A 2011 Oxfam study contends that nearly 230 million hectares - the area of Western Europe - have been sold or leased since 2001. Early characterisation of this was of wealthy Gulf and East Asian states "preying on the world's farmland". The picture now emerging from research by Oxfam, the World Bank and ILC (International Land Coalition) reveals "North African countries investing in sub-Saharan Africa, Brazilian and South African investors angling for deals worldwide, and South-East Asian countries eying one another's soil." Additionally, there is "keen interest in Australian and NZ farmland," which "explodes the myth that these acquisitions represent an assault solely on the developing world."

Initial hostility to land deals was because they were seen as dispossessing subsistence farmers and pastoralists, who depend on land to which they have no legal title and which is too readily seen by those with political influence as being 'empty'. Additional suspicion has been due to the lack of detail available regarding the terms and benefits of many land deals. And David Hallam writes in his overview chapter of the anomalous position where "food insecure, least developed countries in Africa (are) selling their land to rich countries to produce food to feed the rich countries' people." Michael Kugelman adds that, "To meet energy needs, many countries are also searching feverishly for land overseas to use for biofuels production." According to ILC, 40 per cent - about 37 million hectares - of the land involved is set aside for this purpose.

How does this differ from colonial acquisition of land, which displaced indigenous people in order to grow sugar, cotton, coffee, tea, oil palm, rubber, sisal, and bananas? Added to which was land secured by European and American settlers to grow food crops and livestock? One can even go back to Classical times when Rome transformed North Africa into its granary. Precedence is no justification for repetition and the authors of The global farms race examine past and present experiences in Africa, Asia and Latin America to assess costs and benefits, both social and financial, and they offer a variety of recommendations for how investors, host governments and the international community should respond to the race for the world's farmland. One conclusion is that as the low level of investment in developing country agriculture has been highlighted as a cause for the slowdown in agricultural yield growth, any possibility of additional investment from whatever source cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Date published: March 2013

 

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