An economy based on continuous growth constantly requires new metals, minerals, oil, gas, wood, and farmland. These are increasingly acquired at territories inhabited by the poor in developing countries.
The ecological footprint of overproduction and overconsumption concerns both environmental and social justice. The massive tropical deforestation underway in Indonesia and Brazil affects numerous forest communities. In India at least 30 million indigenous Adivasis have been displaced to make way for development projects. According to some estimates, large-scale development projects will displace 150 million people during this decade. Around 80 percent of these people live in developing countries. Even cautious estimates suggest that in 2050 the number of climate refugees may exceed 200 million.
The acquisition of natural resources and land is most aggressive in the global South. Involved parties include corporations and funds operating in the agricultural, agrofuel, forest and mining sectors, and increasingly governments as well. Many rich countries invest aggressively in buying and renting land in poorer countries in order to increase their food and fuel reserves or to ensure the availability of raw materials required by large-scale industry.
Land grabbing and the exploitation of land to meet the needs of the industrialised world is nothing new, but the magnitude of the phenomenom is. Never before has land been seized to this extent, not even during colonial rule. Another recent development is that land acquisition and food production have become part of the speculative markets. Behind these developments is the global expectation of scarcity; the weakening of food security will make land and food prices soar. The widely spread fear of food scarcity is beneficial to investors, including pension funds and private investors. Moreover, the field itself is changing, as the boundaries between the rich North and poor South have shifted; China, Middle Eastern countries and South Korea have become active land grabbers. Nevertheless, European and North American countries remain prominent in the field as well.
From land reforms to agribusiness
In the last few decades, land reforms in which land was redistributed from large landowners to small farmers were an attempt to correct the colonial legacy of inequitable distribution of landholdings. Currently, an opposite development appears to be in effect. When large areas of land are bought or rented for decades, this results in the concentration of landholding and the conclusive deprivation of land from local farmers. Today, land-acquisition agreements come in many forms, yet a common denominator seems to be that only rarely are the locals themselves involved in the making of the agreements. The locals rarely even hear about the agreements or projects before they are implemented. Furthermore, land grabbing often concentrates to areas where local resistance is made difficult, where resistance is unorganised, or where resistance lacks contact with organised social movements.
International development agents have a contradictory role in the current dynamics of agribusiness. On the one hand, development agents such as the World Bank have highlighted and devised means to address issues like land grabbing. On the other hand, during the last few decades these same agents worked to make investing in agribusiness easier. The World Bank still promotes the idea that only large-scale industrial plantations or contract farmers involved in international agribusiness do well in competition and fulfill all the standards required in the export business.
Small-scale farming instead of concentrated landholding
There are limits to natural resources. Nevertheless, even bringing up the issue of scarcity may easily turn into further justification for land grabbing. In Africa, for example, land sales have been argued for by claiming that they are made in preparation for the coming food crisis and that they are made in areas that are empty, unused or underutilised. The World Bank claims that there are 450 million hectares of unused arable land in the world, and that a major part of the land currently used for farming is inefficiently utilised. An easy solution to the food crisis, then, would be taking over these lands or enhancing their utilisation by means of new technology and increased farm size. This position has created unrealistic ideas concerning the potential of agricultural investments and, thus, accelerated the making of these investments. It is often forgotten that areas deemed 'marginal' can already be in use as shared pastures or crop rotation areas. From the perspective of underutilisation, small-scale farming and, in particular, subsistence farming can appear as a problem - instead of being seen as activity that could be supported and fostered.
Many social movements have challenged this notion and emphasised that small-scale farming should be made easier and turned into a viable alternative. Investments should be public, and small-scale farmers should be able to make them as well. When doing profitability calculations, the productivity, employability, and sustainability of operations should be taken into account in the long term, since the profitability of plantations is often based on indirect subsidies. Concurrently, attention should be paid to the forms of ownership and the objectives of the enterprise. For example, cooperative production units are more likely to adopt ecologically sounder models that strengthen food security and justice.
Within discourses on scarcity, land and nature are often seen as mere resources to be exploited. This notion shrouds the histories, diverse livelihoods and diverse ways of living that relate to land, water and forests. Instead of scarcity, however, the real question concerns the distribution of rights to land, water and forests. At issue are also differing understandings of nature and the world, which are similarly disregarded within discourses on scarcity. Such worldviews, in which the expansion of global economy is not taken for an inevitable process, may provide alternatives to the current dynamics of land grabbing and displacement.
Case example: Laos
When development banks launched their financing activities in Laos in the 1990s, one of the first projects that was undertaken was the construction of roads and electrical grids, which still remains elemental today. With this project, areas difficult to access have been opened up for investments and the acquisition of natural resources, and new markets have been created for imported products. The Asian Development Bank has coordinated infrastructure projects in the northern part of the country, while the World Bank has operated in the south. This has resulted in accelerated acquiring of mineral and forest resources, investing in hydropower projects, and renting of land to industrial plantations (such as rubber tree plantations). In some ministries, the situation is getting desperate. 'There is no way for us to control the it anymore', I was told by an official I met. At the same time, many high-ranking members of the communist party benefit from a number of development projects and are involved in illegal logging.
Laos has become a playground for corporate giants; as a result, many people have lost their land and property. In the long-term strategic plan of the country, preparations are already made for an era without natural resources. According to the plan, Laos needs to begin developing a non-resource-based economy. In a new project, the World Bank attempts to add safeguard clauses to 'ensure sustainability' in mining, energy and forest projects. In Laos, as in many other countries as well, this reorientation from promoting investments to governing them is lagging far behind. Development banks still focus more in building a system in which investments are easily made than building one in which investing can be governed.