Corporate Welfare

Land Grabs in the Developing World

How powerful interests seize land from peasants, pastoralists, and others around the globe

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The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth, by Fred Pearce, Beacon Press, 301 pp., $27.95

The Land Grabbers is a wonderful primer on the newest manifestations of an ancient form of plunder: the seizure of other people's resources and destruction of their livelihoods. The author, Fred Pearce, is a well-established British environmental journalist. Here he surveys the ongoing alienation of allegedly "unused" or "underused" land in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Australia, and elsewhere at the hands of international corporations, both private and state-owned. Politicians in the affected countries are key partners in operations that resemble the late-19th-century scramble for control of Africa. The land grabs aim at enriching privileged companies and their political allies, usually at the expense of those already on the land. States, companies, and their frequent close friend, the World Bank, see no reason to respect sitting owners and resource users, whatever their rights under customary law and (sometimes) postcolonial statutes. Pastoral nomads get even less respect. In Tanzania, for example, governments and safari capitalists have reduced the traditional grazing lands of the Maasai herdsmen to a fraction of what they were. And in Ethiopia, the government's "villagization" policy, Pearce writes, resettles peasant farmers "in the manner of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot," clearing the way for deals with foreign capital.

Where agriculture is concerned, the effort goes forth under an ideology that claims that only industrial-scale farming, modeled on subsidized American agribusiness, can feed the world. The ideologues in question include John Beddington, chief UK government scientist; Paul Collier, former research head at the World Bank; and Richard Ferguson of the investment company Renaissance Capital, who hopes to see "industrial-sized farms of a million hectares." To realize that vision, smallholders, hunters, gatherers, and pastoralists must get out of the way and submit themselves to wage-labor, wherever they find it. The ideology goes hand in hand with the form of globalization that relies on the power of the United States and some associated countries to dictate the contours of world trade. While the U.S. has toppled states seen as hostile to American business interests (as in Guatemala in 1954), today's methods are often more subtle. They include USAID programs, American domination of World Bank policies, and a web of treaty obligations, especially international investment agreements.

Pearce is an environmentist, but his book is not especially ideological. He's more interested in presenting data. Wherever possible he has figures for acreage (or hectares) and tells us who did what to whom and where. He also faults wealthy environmental idealists and NGOs, noting that their parks and preserves can displace local people and their property, just like commercial hunting preserves, sugar plantations, logging operations, and the rest can.

Pearce names the entrepreneurs, companies, and political fixers involved, and he sketches out their goals, alliances, and mutual conflicts. He considers motives as well, which go beyond money and power. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and China, for example, are rather short on arable land. To secure supplies of necessary (or profitable) commodities, Arab and Chinese state-owned corporations lease acreage where they can, and these leases can run for many decades. The craze for biofuels such as jatropha also prompted several companies to lease large tracts of land, though so far these projects have failed to materialize. And in the bigger picture, high-level financial gamblers, in headlong flight from the derivatives debacle, have sought to escape into commodities such as corn and soybeans, even if it means displacing peasants and other resource-users who were there first, in countries from Ethiopia to Brazil.

Long ago, the economic journalist Terence McCarthy described the end result of extractive industries working with non-renewable resources on foreign soil: "nothing is left behind but holes in the ground, some narrow and deep, some broad and shallow—until all the Third World becomes West Virginia." At least today's land engrossers grow crops. Displaced local peasants do not find this very comforting. Foreign leaseholders constantly encroach on smallholders and, when necessary, treat the land's former owners and users as trespassers and squatters. Their dams flood others' crops—the sort of conflict that American courts had to sort out in the early 19th century, often in favor of the developers of the day. Indonesian logging companies set the standard for violent aggression against their neighbors, as one villager in Riau Province recalled: "One day, we were just robbed of our communal land." In addition, the loggers' activities polluted streams, reducing available fish. General Suharto, virtual dictator of Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, handed over huge forest tracts to his cronies and shipped existing inhabitants out.

Pearce quotes an expropriated peasant in Sumatra as saying: "We have no means of living here now." That little word now ought to stand at the beginning of any discussion involving former peasants flocking into towns to work for low wages in sweatshops. Yes, under such conditions, people may well prefer to take such jobs. The question arises of why they should have to. Do they prefer urban opportunities to life back in the village? Or did a land grab drive a formerly self-supporting people from their home.

Pearce quite ably defends pastoralists against Garret Hardin's fable about the "tragedy of the commons," which asserts that users of commonly held resources will over-exploit them, leading to degradation in the long run. Pearce's rejoinder is that commoners have created institutions that let them manage resources while avoiding that outcome. (The scholarship of Elinor Ostrom, E.P. Thompson, and J.M. Neeson offers further support.) He argues for the ability of smallholders to innovate locally, adding that modern communications can spread such discoveries. Where these forms of production ain't broke, there's no need to "fix" them.

The current wave of land grabs is a work in progress. Pearce does not claim they will all end disastrously, but many of them will. For a brief moment in the mid-1970s libertarians such as Roy Childs and Murray Rothbard raised the question of land seizures. Then interest flagged and monetary theory, capital structures, and such took center stage. But now land grabbing is back, and libertarians need to give it the attention it deserves.

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24 responses to “Land Grabs in the Developing World

  1. It always comes back to good old Karl:

    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
    8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.

  2. Today, allegedly “unused” or “underused” or “blighted” land in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Australia, America and elsewhere is being seized for international corporations, both private and state-owned.

    FIFY

  3. But we need to give governments more power. If only we gave them more power, KORPORASHUNS won’t be able to come in and displace all these people.

    /Occutard

    Of course giving governments more power will only increase their capacity to give graft to those with cash, but we’re just gonna go ahead and ignore that little reality.

  4. So what is the free market response to this?

    I assume the individuals can boycott the products of theft but its hard to identify what product is stolen in our global marketplace. Its hard to tell what country a product comes from let alone what farm.

    I also assume that the anarchists don’t want the government involved but what about the minimalists, do they think that the government should get involved since theft has occurred?

    1. Government is the reason the theft has occurred to begin with. Corporations only have the power that is given to them by government. Government is involved in every aspect. It simply isn’t possible for corporations to do these things without government providing them with the necessary cover on the ground. They can’t just walk in and steal land without the explicit cooperation from government.

      The only real free market response is to boycott anything at all from concerned countries. There is no other alternative. You cannot rely on corporations to give up their gravy train, nor governments to stop supplying the gravy so long as individual politicians and bureaucrats are in a position to provide cover in exchange for support and money. Where there is power, money will find its way.

      You take away the power for governments to provide cover, and the problem of corporations stealing land is dealt with.

      1. You take away the power for governments to provide cover, and the problem of corporations stealing land is dealt with.

        This and a tradition of strong property rights, with a limited government that respects the individual rights of the people would go a long way. Unfortunately we don’t even have that anymore in our own country, so it’s not likely to happen anywhere else in the foreseeable future.

  5. All captured so eloquently 5 years ago by Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine.” But for her, it just was not land grabs, it was natural resource grabs, and power grabs.
    But all out of the same playbook.

  6. USA vs. Indian tribes all over again.

  7. So they’re not paying for the land? Because it certainly seems like they are. Which would mean that they’re buying the land or leasing the land–not grabbing it.

    Tribal nomads use it? Too fucking bad. Humanity has given up tribal nomadism, get a job. Hey–get a job in one of these factories or farms that are popping up, get some health insurance, some clean water, a cable company and some broadband. Welcome to the 21st century!

    ‘Communal land’? Hahahahahahahahaha!!! Seriously?

    Look, I know an elections coming, and it’s tilt leftward time for a lot of you ‘libertarians’, but try being a bit less obvious, okay? I mean, really, if you’re thinking it’s fine that all the little brown folks can cross our borders and get ours, then, as a libertarian, the reverse HAS to be true. And it sounds like the people doing the ‘grabbing’ are paying for what they want–unlike a fair piece of the border jumpers you favor.

    1. Fuck off hitandrunpublican. Go back to Free Republic

      1. Aren’t you cute!! Did someone tell you that was how to insult someone here? What a trooper you are!

        1. Just saying you’d fit in better over there. Over here, we don’t care about brown people coming here “teh tak er jerbs!” And we’re consistent about property rights, and don’t think the government has the right to take people’s land without their permission to give to corporations. If the people are ok with it, and the corporations buy the land, I don’t have a problem with it. That’s not the full story here

          1. ‘we’. How funny. You said ‘we’.

            We don’t care about brown folks coming here–but WE do understand that the border isn’t one way. If it’s open to them, it’s open to us.

            1. Reality check: our border is not open to them, and theirs is open to us.

    2. No, they are not paying for it. At least not fairly. As the article says, they use
      “USAID programs, American domination of World Bank policies, and a web of treaty obligations, especially international investment agreements.”
      And through that cover, they ‘steal’ the land. Or grab it, whatever you would prefer.
      Try to see beyond that pinhead you stand on.

    3. You sound like a parody.

      Who sold the lands? The government? No kidding. How can the government who doesn’t use or own the lands on which the people live sell them to foreign corporations?

      Why, by the magic of government owning everything and everyone inside its borders. So who’s a leftist here really?

      1. I’m sorry, what are people supposed to do, go into these countries and set up governments and systems of property ownership that meet with your approval before interacting with them? Should all businesses first move be nation building?

        1. I believe if people are using a forest together, that is their common property by natural law. They were here first. You don’t need government to have rights. Geesh, and you were calling us leftists. You’re using positive law thinking, the mother of all tyranny.

          As for what they should do, they can fuck off elsewhere and find another line of business not based on robbery. They, in other words, should GET A JOB. I hear McDonalds is always hiring.

        2. Natural law is the first system of property ownership; and it has my approval as well as yours. If it doesn’t have yours, you’re just an outlaw. So are those businesses and governments taking away what doesn’t belong to them.

          Stuff can belong to you even though the government didn’t inscribe it in its books that it did.

  8. see no reason to respect sitting owners and resource http://www.airmaxsalle.com/hom…..-c-54.html users, whatever their rights under customary law and (sometimes) postcolonial statutes. Pastoral nomads get even less respect. In Tanzania, for example, governments and safari capitalists have reduced the traditional grazing lands of the Maasai herdsmen to a fraction of what they were. And in Ethiopia, the government’s “villagization” policy, Pearce writes, resettles peasant farmers “in the manner of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot,” clearing the way for deals with foreign capital.

  9. Muchas gracias por este gran post! polo ralph lauren baratos Tuve un mont?n de ideas interesantes al leer esto que yo podr?a poner en acci?n de inmediato. gracias

  10. any of them will. For a brief moment in the mid-1970s libertarians such as Roy Childs and Murray Rothbard raised the question of land seizures. Then interest flagged and monetary theory, capital st

  11. The ideology goes hand in hand with the form of globalization that relies on the power of the United States and some associated countries to dictate the contours of world trade. While the U.S. has toppled states seen as hostile to American business interests (as in Guatemala in 1954), today’s methods are often more subtle. They include USAID programs, American domination of World Bank policies, and a web of treaty obligations, especially international investment agreements.

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