“Raises complex and urgent issues.”—Booklist, starred review
How Wall Street, Chinese billionaires, oil sheiks, and agribusiness are buying up huge tracts of land in a hungry, crowded world.
An unprecedented land grab is taking place around the world. Fearing future food shortages or eager to profit from them, the world’s wealthiest and most acquisitive countries, corporations, and individuals have been buying and leasing vast tracts of land around the world. The scale is astounding: parcels the size of small countries are being gobbled up across the plains of Africa, the paddy fields of Southeast Asia, the jungles of South America, and the prairies of Eastern Europe. Veteran science writer Fred Pearce spent a year circling the globe to find out who was doing the buying, whose land was being taken over, and what the effect of these massive land deals seems to be.
The Land Grabbers is a first-of-its-kind exposé that reveals the scale and the human costs of the land grab, one of the most profound ethical, environmental, and economic issues facing the globalized world in the twenty-first century. The corporations, speculators, and governments scooping up land cheap in the developing world claim that industrial-scale farming will help local economies. But Pearce’s research reveals a far more troubling reality. While some mega-farms are ethically run, all too often poor farmers and cattle herders are evicted from ancestral lands or cut off from water sources. The good jobs promised by foreign capitalists and home governments alike fail to materialize. Hungry nations are being forced to export their food to the wealthy, and corporate potentates run fiefdoms oblivious to the country beyond their fences.
Pearce’s story is populated with larger-than-life characters, from financier George Soros and industry tycoon Richard Branson, to Gulf state sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, British barons, and Burmese generals. We discover why Goldman Sachs is buying up the Chinese poultry industry, what Lord Rothschild and a legendary 1970s asset-stripper are doing in the backwoods of Brazil, and what plans a Saudi oil billionaire has for Ethiopia. Along the way, Pearce introduces us to the people who actually live on, and live off of, the supposedly “empty” land that is being grabbed, from Cambodian peasants, victimized first by the Khmer Rouge and now by crony capitalism, to African pastoralists confined to ever-smaller tracts.
Over the next few decades, land grabbing may matter more, to more of the planet’s people, than even climate change. It will affect who eats and who does not, who gets richer and who gets poorer, and whether agrarian societies can exist outside corporate control. It is the new battle over who owns the planet.
From the Introduction
“Buy land. They’re not making it any more.” —Mark Twain
Soaring grain prices and fears about future food supplies are triggering a global land grab. Gulf sheikhs, Chinese state corporations, Wall Street speculators, Russian oligarchs, Indian microchip billionaires, doomsday fatalists, Midwestern missionaries, and City of London hedge-fund slickers are scouring the globe for cheap land to feed their people, their bottom lines, or their consciences. Chunks of land the size of small countries are exchanging hands for a song. So who precisely are the buyers—and whose land is being taken over?
I spent a year circling the globe to find out, interviewing the grabbers and the grabbed on every continent, from Jeddah, London, and Chicago to Sumatra, Paraguay, and Liberia. Almost everyone seems to be a land grabber today. My cast of characters includes super-financier George Soros and super-industrialist Richard Branson; Colombian narco-terrorists and Italian heiresses; an Irish dairy farmer in the Saudi desert and the recent commander of British land forces, now tilling soil in Guinea; gun runners and the couple who sold the world high fashion with the Patagonia brand before buying the wild lands of the same name.
I discovered how logging concessions in central Africa may have helped elect Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France; what Lord Rothschild and a legendary 1970s asset stripper are doing in the backwoods of Brazil; who is buying Laos and Liberia, and who already owns Swaziland; how Goldman Sachs added tens of millions to the world’s starving; the dramatic contrast between Kenya’s Happy Valley and Zimbabwe’s Hippo Valley; who grabbed a tenth of the new state of South Sudan even before it raised its flag; why Qatar is everywhere; and what links a black-skinned Saudi billionaire to Bill Clinton, Ethiopia’s ex-freedom-fighting prime minister, and rich cattle pastures at the head of the Nile.
I found an evangelical American ex–prison boss draining bogs on the shores of Lake Victoria; a dapper English banker plowing up the Brazilian cerrado
grasslands; Saudi sheikhs in Sudan, extending the world’s largest sugar farm; the Moonies seeking “heavenly life” by grabbing Paraguayan jungles; and Gaddafi’s doomed henchmen annexing black earth in Ukraine and yellow sands in Mali. The Kidmans and Windsors and Gettys and Khashoggis and Oppenheimers are in there too—and most likely you, or at least your pension fund, have a slice of the action.
Some regard the term land grabbers
as pejorative. But it is widely used, and the subject of academic conferences. I use it here to describe any contentious acquisition of large-scale land rights by a foreigner or other “outsider,” whatever the legal status of the transaction. It’s not all bad, but it all merits attention. And that is the purpose of this book.
I have been in awe at the grabbers’ sheer ambition, and sometimes at their open-hearted altruism too. Some want to save their nations from a coming “perfect storm” of rising population, changing diets, and climate change. Others look forward to making a killing as the storm hits. Many believe they will do good along the way. But I have been appalled at the damage that often results from their actions.
Their hosts share much of the blame for what goes wrong. After years of neglecting their agriculture, African governments are suddenly keen to invest. Their desire for a quick fix to deep-seated problems makes foreign investors, with their big promises, attractive. Many governments ask few questions when investors come calling. They clear the land of existing inhabitants, and often don’t even ask for rent. There is often an unspoken cultural cringe, in which foreign is always considered best. The investment, ministers believe, will inevitably bring food and jobs to their people. But such easy assurances rarely work out, for reasons that are social, environmental, economic, geopolitical—and sometimes a toxic mix of all four.
There is much uncertainty about how much land has been “grabbed,” and how firm the grasp of the grabbers is. In 2010, the World Bank came up with a figure of 120 million acres. The Global Land Project, an international research network, hazarded 150 million acres. The Land Deal Politics Initiative, another network of researchers that helped organize a conference in Britain on land grabbing in mid-2011, totted up 200 million acres. Within weeks, Oxfam, an aid agency, published its own estimate of 560 million acres. The truth is nobody knows. There is no central register; there is little national transparency. Some of the largest deals were done in secret and unknown even to the most diligent NGOs, while other deals have attracted headlines but have never come to fruition. I have tried to disentangle the truth about individual projects, but I have not attempted any global figure.
I hope I have reported fairly. I did find new mega-farms with thoughtful managers who make sure to offer secure jobs, food, and basic social services to their workers and their families. I found others with vibrant “out-grower” schemes that supported nearby peasant farmers and bought their produce. I found investors with a long-term view. But I also found poor farmers and cattle herders who woke up to find themselves evicted from their ancestral lands; corporate potentates running enclave fiefdoms oblivious to the country beyond their fences; warlords selling land they don’t own to financiers they have never met; hungry nations forced to export their food to the wealthy; and speculators who buy land and then disappear without trace. I was reminded repeatedly of scenes from books like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
This is not about ideology. It is about what works. What will feed the world and what will feed the world’s poorest. But what works has to do with human rights and access to natural resources, as well as maximizing tons per acre. As one agribusiness proponent, James Siggs of Toronto-based Feronia, admitted at an investment conference in 2011, “exclusively industrial-scale farming displaces and alienates peoples, creates few jobs and causes social disruption.”
Yet industrial-scale farming is what most land grabbers have in mind. According to Graham Davies, consultant to the British private equity company Altima Partners, the “vast majority” of investors in Africa are only interested in commercial Western-style agriculture, “largely ignoring” the continent’s 60 million small farms that produce 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s farm produce.
It is important to know what agribusiness can and cannot deliver. But it is equally important to be angered by the appalling injustice of people having their ancestral land pulled from beneath their feet. And to question the arrogance and ignorance surrounding claims, by home governments and Western investors alike, that huge areas of Africa are “empty” lands only awaiting the magic of foreign hands and foreign capital. And to balk at the patina of virtue that often surrounds environmentalists eagerly taking other people’s land in the interests of protecting wildlife. What right do “green grabbers” have to take peasant fields and pastures to grow biofuels, cordon off rich pastures for nature conservation, shut up forests as carbon stores, and fence in wilderness as playpens and hunting grounds for rich sponsors? They are cooking up a “tragedy of the commons” in reverse.
Over the next few decades I believe land grabbing will matter more, to more of the planet’s people, even than climate change. The new land rush looks increasingly like a final enclosure of the planet’s wild places, a last roundup on the global commons. Is this the inevitable cost of feeding the world and protecting its surviving wildlife? Must the world’s billion or so peasants and pastoralists give up their hinterlands in order to nourish the rest of us? Or is this a new colonialism that should be confronted—the moment when localism and communalism fight back?
I began and ended my journey round the world in the cockpit of the greatest land grab in history—the unfenced plains of Africa, where governments, corporations, and peasants seem set to fight for the soil of their continent. I started with a man called Omot.
Excerpted from The Land Grabbers by Fred Pearce. Copyright © 2012 by Fred Pearce. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.