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A World for Sale

In the name of feeding humanity, billionaire investors are on a spending spree

The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth

Fred Pearce

Beacon Press, 301pp., $27.95

"Buy land," Mark Twain suggests in the quote that opens this book. "They're not making it any more." Some of the world's richest investors have been following Twain's advice, especially since global food prices spiked in 2008. China's forays into Africa have gotten the most attention, but Asia and South America are also prime targets, and the Chinese are hardly the only buyers. Saudi oil billionaires, London investors, and U.S. pension fund managers are all driving what the British journalist Fred Pearce calls a "global land grab" that is converting vast areas of the world to industrial farming. Wealthy conservationists are also involved, and while their motives may be different, they too are playing their part in this massive transfer of land ownership to private, foreign hands.

In an increasingly crowded, climate-constrained world, buying land abroad may seem a smart, even high-minded move. John Beddington, the British government's chief scientist, is but one of many Western experts who believe an expansion of large-scale agribusiness is essential to feeding humanity. But the primary goal of such purchases, Pearce reminds us in The Land Grabbers, is usually profit. And his reporting, which took him to more than two dozen countries, suggests that any increased production from these industrial farms is unlikely to aid the almost one billion people around the world who are hungry. Outside investors generally channel their farms' production to the export market. Meanwhile, the farms' original inhabitants are frequently evicted from their ancestral lands as local ecosystems are reduced to chemical-laden monocultures.

Don't be fooled: investors often assert that the lands they are buying are empty or unclaimed, but in this "they are as misguided as the colonial adventurers who came this way a century before," writes Pearce. "To the locals, every inch of the land is owned," even though they may lack legal title.

The biggest prize, Pearce says, is the 1.5 million square miles of grassland that cover 25 countries in central Africa, stretching from Mali in the west through Sudan and Kenya in the east and southward to Zambia and Mozambique. Some 600 million people live in these countries, nearly one-tenth of humanity. Most are very poor and rely on the natural resources provided by the land for much of their food, water, shelter, and medicine. Investors come to exploit those same resources -- or remove them if they stand in the way of the agriculture they want to practice -- so conflict is inevitable.

Often the host government, craving economic development or at least a chance to solicit bribes, sides with the investors against its own people. In western Ethiopia's Gambella province, the government forced countless inhabitants off 25,000 acres it had sold to Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Al Amoudi of Saudi Arabia, sometimes described as the world's richest black man. Al Amoudi plans to grow a million tons of rice a year there and ship it to Saudi Arabia. The land's inhabitants have been relocated to new villages, where the government promised schools, clinics, wells, and replacement farmland. But these promises, they told Pearce, have not been kept.

Besides the human injustice, this particular land grab threatens, in Pearce's words, "an environmental tragedy." The second-largest mammal migration in Africa, the annual trek of more than one million white-eared kob antelope from southern Sudan, terminates in Gambella. But industrial agriculture, with its tree-clearing and fences, is incompatible with wildlife migrations. Care to guess which one the government is protecting?

And so it goes in many of the regions highlighted in this book. Take Brazil, where the focus of environmental concern has long been the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The new target is the cerrado, the grasslands south of the Amazon that cover roughly a quarter of Brazil. This region "is turning into one of the most unremittingly commercialized monocultures on Earth," Pearce writes.

Over the past 30 years, an area of the cerrado the size of Britain, France, and Germany combined has been converted to farmland. Again, most of the production -- soy, cotton, coffee -- is for export, which deflates any notion of benefit for the world's poor. As if to clinch the point, Pearce relates a moment of journalistic serendipity: waiting at a local airport for a flight back to the Brazilian capital (known as "the agribusiness express"), he sees a delegation of Chinese investors deplane. They have come, they say, to invest up to $2.4 billion in what will become the largest soybean processing plant in Brazil, much of its output no doubt bound for the booming Chinese market.

Meanwhile, the world is losing another ecological treasure. The cerrado is -- or was -- home to one-third of all the biodiversity in Brazil, "including some 10,000 plant species, more than 4,000 of them found nowhere else." By law, developers are supposed to leave 20 percent of the land intact as "legal reserves." But when a regional official requested documentation of this, the vast majority of large farmers did not bother to reply.

Tougher enforcement could help, but only to a point, thanks to a legal instrument known as an international investment agreement. Pearce quotes a major funder of land grabs, South Africa's Standard Bank, asserting that such agreements supersede national laws, including "the rights of states to regulate in the public interest." Moreover, host countries must guarantee foreign investors that they will have whatever they need to operate, "even if it conflicts with … local communities' [needs] for potable water, small-scale farming … or subsistence use."

Pearce does a commendable job of exposing this heartless, destructive enterprise. It's unfortunate, then, that he does not quantify how extensive the phenomenon is: how many million square acres are we talking about here? Clearly, land grabbing is a bad thing, but the world is full of bad things. Are the land grabs described in this book a major or minor example of man's inhumanity to man? Pearce lists reasons why it's hard to provide a solid figure for land grabbing globally, but leaves it at that. In a newspaper or magazine article, that might suffice, but a book should attempt a credible reckoning of the scope of its central preoccupation. This failure makes it hard to know how seriously to take Pearce's assertion that "land grabbing will matter more, to more of the planet's people, even than climate change" -- a very large claim he makes in the introduction and then never mentions again, much less tries to demonstrate.

These weaknesses are, however, outdistanced by the book's strengths, especially its wide-ranging reporting and fearless contradicting of the marketplace orthodoxies of globalization. Land grabbing may not be worse than climate change, but it is plenty bad enough, and Pearce is right that attention must be paid.

image of Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard is the author of six books offered in 16 languages, including Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future and, most recently, HOT: Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth. His writing on politics and the en... READ MORE >
Yes, it's happening everywhere there is good land on this planet now. Large tracts of Canadian land are being bought up by foreign interests too. Anyone with too much money needing a safe haven. Even George Bush Junior has bought lots of land in Paraguay. It feels like the endgame has begun.
"Buy land, they don't make it anymore!" I am not sure right now, but I think that this quote belongs to Mark Twain :)
I don't know how many of you recall what happened with the rich wealthy owners of land from the old Roman Empire ... but in case someone does, please write down here about it in order for others to understand the faith of these rats willing to jump out of the boat when it sinks! PS: I never realized that the same Mark Twain quote was written in the first paragraph of this article, it simply struck my memory when I read the title and I was eager to let you know about the famous writer's work :) Have a nice day!