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The Global Farmland Grab in 2016: How Big, How Bad?

Eight years after releasing its first report on land grabbing, which put the issue on the international agenda, GRAIN publishes a new dataset documenting nearly 500 cases of land grabbing around the world.

In October 2008, GRAIN published a report called “Seized: the 2008 land grab for food and financial security”. It exposed how a new wave of land grabbing was sweeping the planet in the name of addressing the global food and financial crises. “On one hand”, we wrote, “‘food insecure’ governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore food production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, see investment in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue.”[1] In the annex to the 2008 report, we documented more than one hundred cases of these new and emerging land deals that, until then, had been buried in the business sections of newspapers like the Vientiane Times and the Sudan Tribune. Little did we know that by merely pulling the news clips and analysis together, the report would trigger a tsunami of global media attention, social activism and political struggle—not to mention corporate headaches.

Eight years later, we went back to look at the data—the myriad reports of land grabbing for food production that we have been following and assessing. Over the past several years, GRAIN staff and allies in different regions have been tracking media and other information sources on a daily basis and posting reports on land grab developments to the open-publishing platform farmlandgrab.org. We used this website as the basis for constructing this dataset, which holds 491 land deals covering over 30 million hectares spanning 78 countries.[2] This new research shows that, while some deals have fallen by the wayside, the global farmland grab is far from over. Rather, it is in many ways deepening, expanding to new frontiers and intensifying conflict around the world. We hope this updated dataset will be useful tool for movements, communities, researchers and activists fighting against land grabbing and defending community-based food systems.

Eight years later: overall assessment

The big picture view that we draw from this exercise is disturbing. First of all, the emerging new trend we wrote about in 2008 has continued and become worse. While most countries are not currently experiencing the extreme price hikes in basic foodstuffs that triggered riots from Haiti to Egypt back in 2008, prices remain stubbornly high and access to food is a daily struggle for most people.[3] Today, that situation is compounded by the mounting impacts of climate change. Harvest losses due to extreme weather have become so acute in places like the southern Philippines that farmers are in the streets begging for food and getting killed for it.[4] We now have even more evidence that climate change is caused not just by burning coal and oil for transport and energy, but by the industrial food system itself and the corporate quest for profits that drives its expansion. Indeed, climate change and land grabs are inextricably linked.

Some of the most egregious land deals we witnessed over the past several years have since backfired or failed for different reasons. In 2009, public outrage over the 1.3 million hectare Daewoo project in Madagascar helped bring down the government leading to the suspension of the deal. In 2011, the assassination of Libyan leader Mouamar Gaddafi put an end to his regime's 100,000-hectare rice project in Mali. Other large-scale deals have been scaled back. In Cameroon, for example, after much protest, the Herakles deal was slashed from 73,000 to 19,843 hectares. Some deals have morphed into less direct forms of land takeover. In Brazil and Argentina, for instance, Chinese companies facing concerns about foreigners grabbing land have tried to work out deals to secure the production from farms rather than purchasing the land themselves. Increasingly, such deals are being labelled “responsible investments”, but they are still, in many ways, land grabs.[5]

While some of the worst land grabs have been shelved or toned down, a number of new deals are appearing, many of which are “hard-core” initiatives to expand the frontiers of industrial agriculture. We say hard-core because these deals are large, long-term and determined to avoid the pitfalls that earlier deals ran into. Much of the Asian-led oil palm expansion in Africa, and the advance of pension funds and trade conglomerates to secure access to new farmlands, fall into this category.[6] Increasingly, gaining access to farmland is part of a broader corporate strategy to profit from carbon markets, mineral resources, water resources, seeds, soil and environmental services.