Land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions; the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals. While used broadly throughout history, land grabbing as used today primarily refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the 2007-2008 world food price crisis . Obtaining water resources is usually critical to the land acquisitions, so it has also led to an associated trend of water grabbing. By prompting food security fears within the developed world and newfound economic opportunities for agricultural investors and speculators, the food price crisis caused a dramatic spike in large-scale agricultural investments, primarily foreign, in the Global South for the purposes of food and biofuels production. Initially hailed by investors and some developing countries as a new pathway towards agricultural development, investment in land has recently been criticized by a number of civil society, governmental, and multinational actors for the various negative impacts that it has had on local communities.
Definition The term "land grabbing" is itself a controversial issue. Borras and others describe that "the phrase 'global land grab' has become a catch-all to describe and analyze the current explosion of large scale (trans)national commercial land transactions" . Meanwhile, Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies notes that "the popular term 'land grabbing', while effective as activist terminology, obscures vast differences in the legality, structure, and outcomes of commercial land deals and deflects attention from the roles of domestic elites and governments as partners, intermediaries, and beneficiaries"
Current situation The most comprehensive estimate of the scope of land acquisition, published in September 2010 by the World Bank, showed that over 46 million ha in large scale farmland acquisitions or negotiations were announced between October 2008 and August 2009 alone, with two-thirds of demanded land concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is important to note that of the World Bank’s 464 examined acquisitions, only 203 included land area in their reports, implying that the actual total land covered could more than double the World Bank’s reported 46 million ha. The most recent estimate of the scale, based on evidence presented in April 2011 at an international conference convened by the Land Deal Politics Initiative, estimated the area of land deals at over 80 million ha.
Of these deals, the median size is 40,000 ha, with one-quarter over 200,000 ha and one-quarter under 10,000 ha. 37% of projects deal with food crops, 21% with cash crops, and 21% with biofuels. This points to the vast diversity of investors and projects involved with land acquisitions: the land sizes, crop types, and investors involved vary wildly between agreements. Of these projects, 30% were still in an exploratory stage, with 70% approved but in varying stages of development. 18% had not started yet, 30% were in initial development stages, and 21% had started actual farming. The strikingly low proportion of projects that had actually initiated farming signifies the difficulties inherent in large-scale agricultural production in the developing world.
Investment in land often takes the form of long-term leases, as opposed to outright purchases, of land. These leases often range between spans of 25 and 99 years. Such leases are usually undertaken between national or district governments and investors. Because the majority of land in Africa is categorized as “non-private land” as a result of government policies on public land ownership and a lack of active land titling, governments own or control most of the land that is available for purchase or lease. Purchases are much less common than leases due to a number of countries’ constitutional bans on outright sales of land to foreigners.
The methods surrounding the negotiation, approval, and follow-up of contracts between investors and governments have attracted significant criticism for their opacity and complexity. The negotiation and approval processes have been closed in most cases, with little public disclosure both during and after the finalization of a deal. The approval process, in particular, can be cumbersome: it varies from approval by a simple district-level office to approval by multiple national-level government offices, and is very subjective and discretionary. In Ethiopia, companies must first obtain an investment license from the central government, identify appropriate land on the district level and negotiate with local leaders, then develop a contract with the regional investment office. Afterwards, the government will undertake a project feasibility study and capital verification process, and finally a lease agreement will be signed and land will be transferred to the investor.Meanwhile, in Tanzania, even though the Tanzania Investment Centre facilitates investments, an investor must obtain approval from the TIC, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Lands and Housing Development, and the Ministry of Environment, among which communication is oftentimes intermittent.
Displacement Another criticism of investment in land is the potential for large-scale displacement and of local peoples without adequate compensation, in either land or money. These displacements often result in resettlement in marginal lands, loss of livelihoods especially in the case of pastoralists, gender-specific erosion of social networks. Villagers were most often compensated as according to national guidelines for loss of land, loss of improvements over time on the land, and sometimes future harvests. However, compensation guidelines vary significantly between countries and depending on the types of projects undertaken. One study by the IIED concluded that guidelines for compensation given to displaced villagers in Ethiopia and Ghana was insufficient to restore livelihoods lost through dislocation .
There also exist a number of issues with the process of actually relocating locals to other areas where land is less fertile. In the process of relocation, often changed or lost are historical methods of farming, existing social ties, sources of income, and livelihoods. This holds drastic impacts especially in the case of women, who rely greatly upon such informal relationships .
Environmental impact Land investment has also been criticized for its implicit endorsement of large-scale industrial agriculture, which relies heavily on fertilizers, machinery and inputs, over smallholder agriculture. As foreign investors begin to develop the land, they will for the most part start a shift towards such large-scale agriculture to improve upon existing “unproductive” agricultural methods. The threat of the conversion of much of Africa’s land to such large-scale agriculture has provoked a severe pushback from many civil society organizations such as GRAIN, La Via Campesina, and other lobbyists for small-scale agriculture.
Foreign investors, through large scale agriculture, increase the effectiveness of under-utilized resources of land, labor, and water, while further providing additional market connections, large-scale infrastructure development, and provision of seeds, fertilizers, and technology. Proposed increases in production quantity, as touted both by investors and hosts, are exemplified by Ethiopia’s Abera Deressa, who claims that “foreign investors should help boost agricultural output by as much as 40%” throughout Ethiopia . However, large scale mechanized agricultural production often entails the use of fertilizers and intensive farming techniques that have been criticized by numerous civil society actors as extremely ecologically detrimental and environmentally harmful over the long run . Over time, such intensive farming threatens to degrade the quality of topsoil and damage local waterways and ecosystems. As such, civil society actors have widely accused land investors for promoting “not agricultural development, much less rural development, but simply agribusiness development”. This trend towards large-scale agriculture that overrides local knowledge and sustainable local farming runs directly counter to the recent IAASTD report, backed by the FAO, UNDP, World Bank, and others, that in order to increase food security over the long term, sustainable peasant agriculture must be encouraged and supported.
Neocolonialism Foreign investment in land has been criticized by many civil society actors and individuals as a new realization of neocolonialism, signifying a renewed economic imperialism of developed over developing nations. Critics have pointed to the acquisitions of large tracts of land for economic profit, with little perceived benefit for local populations or target nations as a whole, as a renewal of the economically exploitative practices of the colonial period.