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Feeding the world 4: Land

Thursday, October 7, 2010

by Mireille Vermeulen

October 7, 2010

Originally published in LEISA's Farm

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Small-scale family farming is about food: producing food to nourish the family and to feed the world. UN reporter on the right to food, interview with CTA last Monday, that access to land is crucial for food security (or food sovereignty, which might be a more proper word if you know what de Schutter stands for).

But these days, land has become a strategic, geopolitical and commercial issue, due to many foreign investors who have become more and more interested in land for food and fuel in the last decade. Investment in land could be positive, for family farmers as well, but increased commercialisation gives reason to fear that large-scale investments in land will deprive the farming population of their land.

Small-scale farmers, pastoralists and fishermen and women have little power and are not consulted in the negotiations leading to these kinds of deals.

In 2009, more than 45 million hectares of land have been traded in large-scale land deals. For Friends of the Earth, this is reason to ring all the alarm bells; their report, Africa: up for grabs, states that one-third of the purchased land in Africa (some 5 million hectares) is intended for the production of fuel crops. These are competing with food crops for farm land and the international agribusinesses are competing with family farmers for land. The European mandate for increasing biofuels is an important driver to this trend in Africa.

Friends of the Earth makes an urgent call to stop this driver (notably by focusing on the EU target to produce 10% of all transport fuels from biofuels by 2020) and to suspend further land deals for biofuels immediately. The publication points at the protests raised in Tanzania, Madagascar and Ghana, where companies have been accused of fraud and giving misleading information. The rest of the publication presents some ideas on alternative directions and ways to support small-scale farmers.

On the other hand, the World Bank and other big institutions state that if we want the best support for farmers, it may be that large-scale investment in land can actually bring them more security and welfare. Sure, it is much easier and more appealing to be against all big land deals, but there may be more results if we think strategically.

De Schutter is pragmatic about this issue, coming out with a discussion paper last January, called Some principles for responsible agricultural investment that respects rights, livelihoods and resources. This paper states that land deals should only be made if they are good for food security, if their programmes are economically viable and socially and environmentally sustainable, and if negotiations include all stakeholders. Lastly, land rights must be respected and land must not be transferred via local elites towards foreign investors in cases where the land rights situation is not clear.

But the question is therefore: can large institutions really be trusted to take these precautions? Anuradha Mittal from the Oakland Institute thinks not. This international think tank published a paper The great land grab in 2009 about how the rush for the world´s farmland is threatening the food security of the poor.

This year, the institute analysed the role of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group in large-scale land deals, in the publication (Mis)investment in Agriculture. IFC promotes profitable deals by creating special agencies for it and rewriting national laws. In the latest issue of Farming Matters, Anuradha Mittal disapproves of the practice of foreign land acquisition in our interview, Cheap deal for rich countries. States Mittal: "This is not investment; it’s exploitation, depleting the resources of the third world."

On 7 September 2010, the World Bank finally published its long awaited report on global farmland grab: Rising global interest in farmland. Many organisations and institutions that had anticipated the report and were a bit disappointed. The study reveals very little new information and does not respond to serious criticism on the role of the IFC. GRAIN has established a land grab website, publishing all relevant and up-to-date reports and events on this important issue.

Keep yourself posted!