Earth Matters: Land Grabs
This month, responding to campus activists who have been working on the issue for over a year, Vanderbilt University divested from “land grabbing,” withdrawing a $26 million investment in EMVest, a company that has been buying agricultural properties in Africa and converting them into large-scale commercial farms that grow food for export. (See Oakland Institute’s press release.)
This is a small, but very important step, indicative of the increased recognition of the problem of land grabs. A few non-governmental organizations, including Oxfam and the Oakland Institute, have been combatting land grabs for years, but the issue has not started attracting broader attention until recently. It’s about time.
Land (and water) grabs occur when rich nations, or even individual investors, buy or lease vast tracts of land in poor countries and convert it to large-scale agricultural production, sometimes even for biofuels instead of for food, in the process displacing local communities, driving small-scale farmers out of work, increasing local food insecurity, forcing changes to local diets (usually with extremely negative health outcomes), and decreasing agro-biodiversity, among other negative effects.
Mother Jones published a story earlier this month on how land grabbing has been on the increase in the last decade, with potentially devastating effects on food security in many countries that already have problems with hunger. (Go here to read the story.) That article draws on information published in an article in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) “Global land and water grabbing” that details how land grabs – and the concomitant water grabs – are creating circumstances where it is impossible for local citizens to meet the requirements for a balanced diet. As the authors note, land/water grabbing can also lead to deforestation, land degradation, and poor water quality, in addition to increased food insecurity.
Interestingly, a recently released study by the Munden Foundation has added an economic argument against land grabs. Instead of making an argument about the environmental damage or harm to local communities caused by land grabbing, this study focuses on the economic risk to investors caused by instability and disruption when local landholders are displaced. In an article in the Guardian, Jonathan Glennie notes that the issue is finally gaining traction.
Vanderbilt’s action is an example of this. It is an important recognition of the harm land grabs – and investing in companies that are prime actors in this process – can cause. While international organizations like the FAO and the World Bank are still encouraging agricultural development projects in developing countries (see http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-10-04/world-bank-rejects-oxfam-call-to-freeze-land-investment on the World Bank’s response to an Oxfam report calling for a change to its investment strategies), arguing that boosting agricultural productivity will be a net benefit for addressing world hunger and will help bring investment to poor communities, more and more people are starting to see that the downsides of these investments can be greater than their value, doing little to help – and often much to harm – food security in the poorest countries.