Demand for arable land has soared in recent years, initially spurred by a worldwide spike in food prices between 2007 and 2008, and trends in population growth. The crisis led some countries, like Saudi Arabia, to subsidize land acquisitions in a bid to insure their nations’ food supply. At the same time, new environmental laws raised demand for biofuels, so that land once used to grow crops for food is now used to grow crops for fuel. In the European Union, 10 percent of transportation fuel by 2015 must come from plants.
The combined effect of these changes has driven interest in land to unprecedented levels.
Until 2008, agricultural lands were expanding by 10 million acres a year, according to a report by the World Bank. Currently, deals are in the works to hand foreign investors rights to some 560 million acres, an area roughly the size of Western Europe, according to a recent study by Oxfam. The majority of this expansion, Oxfam reported, has come in the last two years, and most of it is in Africa.
There, large-scale purchases by foreigners of land for agriculture, often portrayed as a solution to the challenge of feeding the world’s rapidly expanding populace, are more often producing hunger and hardship. The deals are unfolding between governments competing for foreign investment and companies searching for cheap land, with details becoming public–if at all–only after negotiations have concluded.
A few recent examples:
In Ethiopia, where 4.5 million people need food aid, according to the United Nations, the government has set aside 8.9 million acres of arable land–an area the size of Belgium–for lease to foreign investors. A Saudi company, set to ultimately lease 741,000 acres for 60 years at $3.81 an acre annually, is already exporting rice, tomatoes, peppers, vegetables and cut flowers to the desert kingdom and its neighbors.
In Uganda, a British forestry company that boasts of its environmental credentials is tied to the violent removal of 20,000 farmers from land they have tilled for decades, after government forces burned down their houses to clear land for the company. Residents also accuse employees of the New Forest Company of harassing them and destroying their homes, charges the company has denied.
In Tanzania, an estimated 162,000 refugees from Burundi are facing eviction, after a Connecticut-based company, bought rights to the land on which they have been living for decades from the Tanzanian government.
In each of these deals, locals have complained that they were not included in the discussions that led to the loss of their rights, and that promises once made–for compensation, for resettlement, for jobs–were quickly broken.