The New Fight Against the Old Problem of “Land Grabbing”

On May 11, the UN Committee on Food Security will vote on voluntary guidelines to govern the practice of land tenuring. Ahead of that decision, a coalition of NGOs has released Land Matrix, a data visualization tool that helps paint a more complete picture of an issue that’s become increasingly important in many parts of the developing world over the past four to five years.

Also known as land grabbing, land tenuring involves acquiring land at low prices and using it to fuel food and cash crop production, the creation of biofuels or forestry. Data on exactly how much land has been purchased is hard to come by, although a 2010 World Bank report suggests it could as much as twice the amount we’re aware of.

A global spike in food prices in 2007-2008 created widespread concerns about food security. For investors—among them American financiers, Chinese corporations and Saudi princes—these concerns presented an opportunity. By acquiring land in countries like Kenya, Cambodia and Cameroon, they could help ramp up food production and make some money in the process. Billionaire financier George Soros called farmland “one of the best investments of our time.”

Land grabbing happens most frequently in countries where the government doesn’t hold land rights in high regard, a view that’s frequently a function of the government owning large swaths of land and complex, bureaucratic processes necessary for obtaining land titles.

Leaders in countries of interest, many of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa, saw an opportunity to increase agricultural output, create jobs and improve infrastructure. In other words, this was a path to development.

And yet land grabbing has had exactly the opposite effect, according to the UN Committee on Food Security’s website.

“Where the poor and vulnerable have limited and insecure rights to land and other natural resources, it is difficult for them to overcome hunger and poverty. Conversely, equitable and secure rights can support social and economic development and the sustainability of the environment.”

The practice has also been criticized for the negative effects it has on local communities.

“Peasants are being replaced with tractors,” Fred Pearce wrote for The Guardian. Pearce’s book, The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth is out later this month.