Land Grabs in the Developing World

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


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.