The New Land Rush
(Page 2 of 6)
The investors are negotiating land transfers all the way from the top, with heads of state down to tribal chiefs and impoverished landowners. Water rights, tax breaks, and waivers on labor and environmental standards often sweeten the deals.
When they cannot buy land outright at prices ranging from cheap (a few dollars an acre) to stolen (“You get a bottle of Johnnie Walker, kneel down, clap three times, and make your offer of Johnnie Walker whiskey,” in one transaction reported by the Oakland Institute), investors lease vast tracts for as long as 99 years and for as little as 40 cents per acre per year.
According to the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, some 2 billion people in the developing world depend on 500 million smallholder farms for their livelihoods. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, these farmers produce about 80 percent of the food that local people consume.
But with spectacular speed, patchworks of plots that used to support local populations through subsistence farming and grazing are being amalgamated into massive industrial plantations. In Awassa, Ethiopia, a “plastic and steel structure already stretches over 50 acres—the size of 20 soccer fields,” writes John Vidal in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.
With a 99-year lease for 2,500 acres, the developer, Saudi Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, has brought in Spanish engineers and Dutch water technology, and hired 1,000 women to pick, pack, and send 50 tons of food a day to the Middle East, writes Vidal.
The years 2007 and 2008 marked a turning point for both environmental consciousness and food insecurity. Before then, agricultural land had expanded by less than 10 million acres a year. But with the pileup of evidence for global warming, no one but the ideologically blinkered could see extensive droughts and other weather-related catastrophes as flukes. Sharply diminished yields triggered exporting countries to ban or curb grain sales, pushed prices up, and helped trigger riots that shook dozens of countries. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned in 2008 that “33 countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices.”
By 2009 deals were being struck for 111 million acres, with 75 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a World Bank report. A year later, the bank upped the total to nearly 140 mil-lion acres.
These “land grabs,” says Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, encompass “an area that exceeds the croplands devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States.”
Then, as if out of nowhere, the Arab Spring struck in 2011. Long-standing un- and underemployment and repression were key triggers, but as the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted, a “proximate factor behind the unrest was a spike in global food crises, which in turn was due in part to the extreme weather throughout the globe over the past year.”
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