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The Right to Food: Corporate, Foreign Gov’t Land Grab Causing Hunger in Poor Countries

StoryOctober 28, 2010
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The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, joins us to discuss his recent warning that some 500 million small farmers in poor countries are suffering from hunger, partly because foreign countries and corporations have bought up large tracts of land. We’re also joined by Smita Narula, author of a new study suggesting that many of the land deals in Africa and South Asia lack transparency and could threaten local communities with eviction, undermine their livelihoods, and endanger their access to food. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Some 500 million small farmers in poor countries are suffering from hunger partly because of large-scale land purchases by foreign investors and the growing use of biofuels. That’s the message that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food had for the General Assembly last week. Olivier De Schutter added that the practice of so-called land grabs is taking place in a context where the world is already losing 75 million acres of farmland a year to environmental degradation, industrial expansion and urbanization.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, a new report being released here in New York today suggest that many of the land deals recently concluded in Africa and South Asia lack transparency. Based on a year-long study of four particular deals in Sudan, Pakistan, Mali and Tanzania, the report notes that the so-called land grabs could threaten local communities with eviction, undermine their livelihoods, and endanger their access to food.

For more, we’re joined here in New York by the report’s lead author Smita Narula, who’s the faculty director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law School. We’re also joined by Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Oliver De Schutter, let’s start with you. Give us the scope of this issue. I don’t think people are at all aware of what’s happening in the rest of the world when it comes to, well, what you’re calling land grabs.

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Well, the pace at which this is developing is really impressive. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen about 40 million hectares of land exchanged subject to such deals, which represents about twice the farmland of France, for example. So it is going very fast, and it’s driven by a lack of confidence that now investors have in international markets. And they seek to secure supply of food by outsourcing food production at the expense of the small farmers in developing countries who already have too little land to cultivate. Every generation, the plots they cultivate grow smaller. And they are now facing this competition from foreign investors and are basically priced off the market.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Are there particular crises that have sort of sparked this land grab in recent years? I’m thinking, for instance, of the financial crisis in Asia several years back. Or anything in particular that is driving this?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Well, I think there are four factors, essentially, which explain this. First, the prices on international markets are increasingly volatile and unpredictable. And so, countries understand that to ensure their food in the future, they need to buy land in order to secure stable supplies of food by outsourcing food production. They don’t trust the international markets anymore. And the global food price crisis of 2008 was, in that sense, a wake-up call for them.

Secondly, there is a push towards the production of biofuels, which is one of the main drivers behind this race for farmland.

Thirdly, we are losing every year some 30 million hectares of land to industrial projects, urbanization, and the land is shrinking. The land that is available to produce food is shrinking.

And fourthly, many countries are now lacking water. This is the case for China, for example, which has to feed 22 percent of the world’s population with eight percent of farmland, but which has not enough resources of fresh water. And they try to buy land abroad, because they know that in the future they will need this to feed the population.

AMY GOODMAN: Wall Street banks. Can you talk about the Wall Street banks that are doing this?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Well, absolutely. I think we have to realize that although much of the media attention has gone to countries purchasing land of broad, in fact the main actors here are private investors, and mostly investment funds, who use land as an asset, as a speculative asset, and they know that the price of farmland will continue to rise in the future. And so, they buy this without necessarily having a very clearly defined project, but they buy this because they know that the price of land will continue to rise. And it is, for them, a means to basically hedge the risk from other investments they make. They know that it’s a relatively safe way to invest their money. And it is, indeed, increasing the pressure on many populations.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you name names?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Unfortunately, it is sometimes very difficult to identify those — the main actors behind this. The reason is that many of these deals lack transparency. They are discussed in public, not presented to parliaments. They don’t lead to negotiations with the local communities concerned. And for everybody, it is very difficult to identify who are the actors behind this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Smita Narula, you’ve tried to track some of these deals, especially in countries that people would not expect this is going on — in Pakistan, in Tanzania, two countries that are experiencing huge domestic problems, obviously. Could you talk about the specifics of what you found?

SMITA NARULA: Sure. The report that the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice is releasing today actually looks at this — hones in on four case studies, that tries to put a little bit more detail to the broader phenomenon that Olivier was speaking of, in the context of over one billion people going hungry today and over 40 million hectares of land transferring hands, particularly agricultural land. We tried to see who these investors are, the kinds of investments that are taking place. And our major findings, as well, speak to the lack of transparency that Olivier mentioned.

The report looks at investments in agriculture, in biofuels and in timber production in several countries and is led by investors from Europe and the Middle East. Our general findings are that these investments, by and large, are taking place with an extreme lack of transparency with sufficient detail to be able to effectively scrutinize the investments. They are taking place in an environment where there is a lack of regulation from the host countries themselves, either a lack of ability or willingness to effectively regulate the investments. And there’s also — the result of both of these is that the potential impacts on the rights of host communities is great. We are concerned, in particular, about food security, about water shortages, and about depriving millions of people to access to the very land that they depend upon for their livelihood and resources.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, when you say “lack of transparency,” I would think that in most countries, when you — when land passes hands, there has to be a deed, and there has to be a registration of that deed, so that there has to be a way to find out who owns the land, right?

SMITA NARULA: So, in a number of the countries concerned, the rights of the communities that are occupying the land are actually very unclear. Their use of the land is very clear, and the dependence on the land is clear, but there isn’t formal registration of those lands. There is also a lack of a regulatory framework in how the land actually gets used, gets transferred. And in the agreements that we have been able to see, the commitments to host communities are written in remarkably vague terms for deals effecting a ninety-nine-year lease and thousands upon thousands of hectares of land. And we’re concerned that this lack of regulation and the vagueness attached to these are going to have severe impacts on the rights of communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, give us the example of Pakistan.

SMITA NARULA: And Pakisan is a great example of non-transparency. There, the Pakistani government last year announced that it would make over 2.4 million hectares of land available to foreign corporate investment in agriculture. One farmers’ movement has noted that at least 25,000 villages threaten to be displaced by investments from Gulf state investors alone. Yet there is an enormous lack of transparency related to what these deals are, who’s driving them. And as far as we can tell, in most of these, the host communities have rarely been consulted about what their rights are. And, of course, their own agency over resources has not been respected in these deals.

AMY GOODMAN: Olivier De Schutter, talk about the remedies here.

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Well, there are a number of proposals which are on the table. Particularly, the World Bank, with other organizations, has put forward a number of principles to regulate the lendings, to make them more acceptable. I think, however, that the main point is not just how to make them more disciplined, because the real question is, who will benefit most from the land? And it is not enough to say that the deals should be respecting a number of conditions, which investors should take into account. It’s important to ask the question, how is the land best used?

And my view is that, in many cases, it would be much better used by the local communities, if small farmers are supported and given more land to cultivate. It can be extremely useful for the raising of their incomes, for rural development, for the better preservation of the ecosystems. It has, in other terms, a number of social and environmental externalities which are positive and which, I think, we should take into account. The alternative, if you wish, today is either to develop further these large-scale plantations, which are not creating lots of employment, which are depleting the soils and destroying the climate, or supporting small-scale farming by distributing land and by ensuring more equitable access to land for those small holders. And that is where we have to focus our efforts, to support small-scale farmers and raise their incomes at the same time that we improve production.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you mentioned earlier the impact of the search for biofuels on this. Any particular cases or examples where these land transfers are more a result of folks seeking land for biofuel purposes?

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you mean by biofuels?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Well, it is one major driver. In a study which the World Bank has not released, but which it presented in April this year, it scrutinized 389 projects. And 35 percent of these large-scale investments in land were for the production of agro-energy — biodiesel, ethanol — on the basis of a variety of plants. So it’s a very important driver, the production of energy crops. And one of the cases, indeed, that they studied, by the NYU report, concerns the production of biofuels, and it is just one of many examples. This is one major driver in this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Smita, who gets the money? I mean, when you talk about in Mali, in Pakistan, in Tanzania, who is being paid? And what happens? Are people just told, “Get off the land now”?

SMITA NARULA: So, there’s a variety of practices. And the example in Mali is actually an example of a good practice, where a company has come in, has made local farmers shareholders in the process, has not transferred land, and has actually tried to ensure that the benefits of the investment go straight back to the community. We include that as an example of a good practice in a sea of negative practices. In other examples —

JUAN GONZALEZ: And which is that company? Just to —

SMITA NARULA: Mali Biocarburant SA, and it’s a Dutch-financed firm. Other companies are in — another example that we look at taking place in Tanzania, where Swedish companies are investing in biofuels, a number of questions have been raised regarding how those investments may threaten local water supply, and also questions have been raised regarding community consent. On the question of where the money goes, right now the sums of money that are being offered in exchange for leasing large swaths of land are really token sums and very little, and there’s no evidence that it’s going back to the communities who may be displaced from the land.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Smita Narula at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law School, and we also want to thank Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

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