Land Grabbing

6 06 2009

Yesterday I received an email from the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID) about a new website being launched by GRAIN a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

The new website,,  was launched last week to serve as an open forum to discuss the growing problem of out-sourced food production.

African Charter Article# 21: All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources for their exclusive interest, eliminating all forms of foreign economic exploitation.

The new website has news, reports, videos, and audio interviews to help people track and understand what is going on. Anyone can register and upload material. The site serves as an active forum for debate and proposals on how to turn things around, with free and open space to write your own piece, comment on someone else’s, or create new sections.

20 million hectares of good cropland worldwide has already been signed off to foreign investors.

One article that I read on the site mentions an article written by the Economist in their previous edition (May 30th 2009 ed.) but unfortunately I couldn’t find the story they referenced. Here is the article – on Food Security or Economic Slavery? – written on June 1st.

More on this topic to come soon, as I find it quite interesting, but would like to spend more timing forming my opinion.


(The following is an excerpt from the email I received on the CASID listserve)

“This new site is an improved version of the site initiated by GRAIN last year which provides an open, up-to-date, and easy to search library of over 800 articles, interviews, and reports on farm land grabs around the world – published since the outbreak of the food crisis in 2008.

The global trend to buy up or lease farmlands abroad as a strategy to secure basic food supplies, or simply to get rich, is not slowing down – it is getting worse. The scale is becoming more apparent now, with researchers counting some 20 million hectares of good cropland already signed off to foreign investors, or soon to be, worldwide. More countries and corporations are getting involved, from Sri Lanka to Congo or Hyundai to Varun. Farmers’ organisations, human rights groups and other social movements are agitating against this obscene approach to feeding their countries, while at least one government, the Ravalomanana regime in Madagascar, has been brought down because of its involvement in such a deal.

Next month, through a move by the Japanese government, which has a direct stake in locking down its own outsourced food supply, the Group of Eight most powerful countries are going to release a set of criteria to make these deals look “win-win”. The words will be smooth, but people won’t be fooled.

Like its predecessor, this new website contains mainly news reports, videos and audio interviews to help people track and understand what is going on. However, its role as a public clearinghouse on otherwise secret deals will be stronger:

  • The new site is open-publishing, meaning anyone can register and upload material.
  • The website will contain as many land grab contracts as possible, releasing them into the public domain because the secrecy surrounding these deals is unacceptable. (Please contact us if you have any such documents to share. Anonymity will be respected.)
  • The website will serve as an active forum for debate and proposals on how to turn things around, with free and open space to write your own piece, comment on someone else’s or create new sections.

This land grab blog is an open project. Although currently maintained by GRAIN, anyone can join in posting materials or developing it further.”

*In October 2008, GRAIN published “Seized: The 2008 land grab for food and
financial security“, one of the first overall analyses of this new trend. It is
available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia.

*GRAIN also maintains a landgrab resource page bringing together GRAIN materials,
other organisations working on the issues, and relevant actions & events. There
are also a number of land grab maps from various sources.

Post written by Sarah Topps

Farmer Suicides

5 05 2009

Recently I was horrified to learn that mass suicide due to debt is not uncommon in some parts of the world. Some 1500 farmers committed suicide last month in India due to their debt from crop failure. A further 200 000 have died since 1997, a mere 12 years ago.

The article goes on to talk about Australian farmer suicides – they’re killing themselves at the staggering rate of one farmer every four days! I am blown away by these numbers – surely in a developed country such as Australia there must be other options for these people? I feel I have to question a system where individuals are driven not only to debt and unemployment, but actual suicide over their crop failures.

vandanashiva1Vandana Shiva is a well-known activist in this area, working mostly in India, she gives hope to the people, helping to organize countless protests and demonstrations against everything from major-scale dams and hydro-electric projects funded by the World Bank, to the maltreatment of individual squatters in the cities.

– Sarah Topps

The Land Tenure Debate

14 04 2009

hernando-de-sotoHernando de Soto Polar, a famous Peruvian economist, first suggested giving title to land as a way to use globalization to fight poverty at the most basic level in his book: The Other Path in 2000, and has since won international acclaim for his suggestion. Hernando de Soto himself explains the process best, using the simple analogy of an apple at a 2001 speech in Brussels:

I hope by now you have noticed that I have an apple here on the desk. This apple is my apple. […] what makes this my apple is a consensus about its ownership. However, if we look closely at this apple, there is nothing on or in it that says it is mine. Nothing in the physical context of the apple gives us that information. A stolen apple and a legitimate apple both look the same. […] Nothing in the apple says whether I can pledge it, lend it, deposit it as a guarantee, use it as collateral, or whether I can export or import it or cut it up among partners. In other words, the commercial and social life of my apple is not determined by the apple itself, but rather from the rules which we establish among ourselves to allow the apple to be traded and be attributed with commercial and financial functions that allow it to be globalised. […] Globalisation as we know it today is only possible through law that provides rules and through neatly organised standards that provide information.”

De Soto estimates that there are millions of dollars trapped in what he calls ‘dead property’ around the world due to the fact that its owners do not have official title to their land. Over 80 percent of the assets owned by the poor in developing countries cannot enter the market because they have no legal representation, he claims (De Soto 2001). Through changing property law, he sees us overcoming these hurdles and connecting a further 4 billion people to the capitalist land markets of the world. Giving title to property, he argues, gives the poor leverage to change their ownerships into capital – collateral or credit, will stem development as they take on entrepreneurship and not stay trapped in their subsistence agriculture or other small livelihoods (De Soto 1986).

De Soto’s idea was revolutionary and captured the minds of many, but not everyone agreed that his solution would work in all cases. John Bruce questions whether just handing out titles to plots of land is necessarily going to help the poor, arguing that “Tenure change cannot create more land” (Bruce 1993). He explains that giving title to those who informally own the land is useful if there is a system in place to recognize that legal title, if it is carefully documented when the title to the land changes hands and if there is a market – i.e. a demand for the land which is being titled. If there is no one who wishes to buy the land, he argues, then it is not helpful to be able to legally sell it and banks will not be willing to give you credit for such undesirable collateral (Bruce 1993).

Speaking specifically of indigenous lands, he says that critics of indigenous tenure systems often fault the indigenous for being unwilling to recognize the sale of their land, or to make investments in the land which cannot be converted to liquid assets. He also notes problems with community-sanctioned land use; certain innovations may tie down land use for longer than is appropriate, destroying the ecological balance or disrupting the community commons (Bruce 1993).

Bruce argues against these critics, saying that: “The causes of insecurity are diverse, and many have little to do with the rules of indigenous systems. It may arise from the abuse of power by traditional land administrators in hierarchical systems, or from their ineffectiveness in enforcing rules in political or economic circumstances which have undermined their authority. Competition between ethnic groups, land grabbing by new elites, and such arbitrary government action as taking without compensation or granting concessions inconsistent with existing rights are emerging sources of insecurity of tenure that may prove in the long run more serious than deficiencies in the substantive rules of indigenous systems” (Bruce 1993).

*The following is an excerpt of a paper I wrote on the land tenure debate in Peruvian indigenous communities*

“Despite growing international pressure to recognize and protect the rights of indigenous communities, and the fact that Peru signed and ratified the ILO Convention 169 on the group rights of indigenous peoples, Peru made very little progress in these matters during the 1990s (Smith, et al. 2003). This was due mainly to the Fujimori government and the state’s non-interventionist neo-liberal stance – little attempt was made to protect the communities, focusing instead on individual land titling: exactly what Hernando de Soto had recommended (Smith, et al. 2003). Unfortunately, this was not in the indigenous communities’ best interests, because they generally had no individual rights to the land they were using – particularly in the case of the Machiguenga and other neglected Amazonian groups.

While de Soto’s arguments may hold true for urban slum dwellers and highland indigenous farmers, the jungle-dwelling Machiguenga and the island-constrained Taquileans had very different starting points and neither is an appropriate case for implementing de Soto’s theories in order to gain credit access.

The Taquileans already had title for their lands, but could not use it for collateral to gain credit access because of community consensus that non-Taquileans should not be landowners on the island of Taquile. In addition, Taquileans had already created their own access to capital due to their burgeoning tourist trade.

The Machiguenga on the other hand, had a strong desire for capital, but have two restrictions on gaining title to their lands for use as collateral: first, they require the use of a wide range of land for their traditional type of subsistence swidden-fallow horticulture, and secondly, as Bruce has pointed out, there needs to be a demand for the land before it is worth taking as collateral by banks, who manage the credit. The sustainable use of their forest reserves involves moving their dwelling and their field to a new location about every five years (Henrich 1997).

These constraints on the Machiguenga may change as more and more of them become involved with western-style labour markets and as the demand for the natural resource bases contained within their land (such as gold, timber, forest products, natural gas) increase. Then the Peruvian government may be faced with the dilemma of trying to reconcile the sale of precious nature reserves by the so-called conservationist indigenous groups, the Machiguenga among them, to resource extraction companies, with the fact that it is a simple and legal (currently) way for those indigenous people to advance their own development, and obtain the things that the westernized world sees as so desirable: health care, education, houses, electricity etc.

Alternatively, the individuals in the Machiguenga group may suffer because their community leaders are trying to freeze-frame their culture and way of life and if the land rights are communal, then individual actors are disempowered to make choices about their own futures because they can’t legally sell their land and go elsewhere.
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Entirety of the above article written by Sarah Topps © April 14th 2009

If you are interested in reading more about Hernando de Soto’s work – read this interview with him by PBS.

Bruce, J. “Do indigenous tenure systems constrain agricultural development?” In Land in African Agrarian Systems, by T. Basset and D. (eds.) Crummey, 35-56. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.
De Soto Polar, Hernando. “Most People Cannot Participate (Speech) .” Brussels, October 21, 2001.
De Soto, Hernando. The Other Path. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1986.
Henrich, Joe. “Market Incorporation, Agricultural Change and Sustainability Among the Machiguenga Indians of the Peruvian Amazon.” Human Ecology 25, no. 2 (1997): 319-351.
Smith, Richard Chase, Mario Pariona, Ermeto Tuesta, and Margarita Benavides. “MAPPING THE PAST AND THE FUTURE: GEOMATICS AND INDIGENOUS TERRITORIES IN THE PERUVIAN AMAZON.” HUMAN ORGANIZATION 62, no. 4 (2003): 357 – 368.

1125 Billionaires ($US), 3.25 Billion with $2

4 04 2009

There are 6.74 Billion people on the planet – according to census data gathered over the last ten years.
The global economy, or world GDP currently sits at an estimated 70.65 Trillion US dollars.

Let’s do some basic math…

:              6 740 000 000 human beings on the planet
: 70 650 000 000 000 dollars floating around the world today

In 2003, the world owed $5 Trillion ($5 000 000 000 000) in debt globally.

Where do you think the greatest debts are found? The media would lead us to believe that the poorest countries, in Africa, Asia and Latin America would be the culprits. But take a look at this map, provided by Jeremy at Make Wealth History:

Global Debt by Country

Global Debt by Country

The darker the colour, the more heavily indebted that country is.

External debt is made up of both personal and public debt – that is, credit cards and mortgages AND government loans. External debt is the total amount owed to someone OUTSIDE of the country.

When you look at global external debt, the results look like this:

Top Ten Countries by External Debt (October ’08)

  1. United States – $13,703,567 million
  2. United Kingdom – $10,450,000 million
  3. Germany – $4,489,000 million
  4. France – $4,396,000 million
  5. Netherlands – $2,277,000 million
  6. Ireland – $1,841,000 million
  7. Japan – $1,492,000 million
  8. Switzerland – $1,340,000 million
  9. Belgium – $1,313,000 million
  10. Spain – $1,313,000 million

Not exactly poor countries are they?

This compares to:

169. Equatorial New Guinea – $338 million
183. Fiji – $127 million
194. Kiribati – $10 million     …. side note: it is actually pronounced “Ki-ri-bas” according to this book (very funny read)
202. Palau – $0

– Sarah Topps

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