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The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth

The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth

by Fred Pearce

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
In The Land Grabbers, Pearce has produced a powerful piece of journalism that illuminates how the drive for expanded food production is transforming the planet. Anyone who cares where her next meal is coming from should read it.
—Juliet Eilperin
Publishers Weekly
In the latest by environmental journalist Pearce (When the Rivers Run Dry), politics and human rights take center stage. Bouncing around the globe, Pearce analyzes the practices of “land grabbers”—outsiders contentiously acquiring large-scale land rights—and exposes their often heavy-handed tactics. Whether in Tanzania, Australia, or Kenya, Pearce shows how land grabbers displace natives who have lived there for generations and who receive little or no help from national laws. Through personal interviews and stories, Pearce reveals how governments often work on the side of big corporations, with a “casual indifference to people’s rights.” As he makes clear, it’s dangerous to pretend that big commercial farming has any interest in feeding the world. His survey also extends beyond land grabbing, such as in a chapter dealing with the Chicago Board of Trade, which focuses on the evils of market speculators and day traders. While readers will find the lives and tribulations of uprooted natives captivating and troubling, the fact that these incidents are not localized to the Third World is part of Pearce’s message. Unfortunately the narrative becomes repetitive, resulting in the feeling of reading the same story over and over again. Agent: Jessica Woollard, the Marsh Agency. (May)
From the Publisher
"Pearce may be the only person to visit all the critical frontlines worldwide, and his brilliant reporting makes the abstraction real. Probably the most important environmental book anyone could read right now.”—Timothy Searchinger, fellow, German Marshall Fund; research scholar, Princeton University 

“Compelling and well-researched ... Dissects the modern rush to acquire land for production, investment, speculation or preservation.”—Wendy Wolford, Nature
“Raises complex and urgent issues.”—Booklist, starred review
“A thorough and enlightening exposé.”—Conservation 

“A well-researched, informative and accessible look at important economic and agricultural issues.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This is just what the world has been waiting for—a detailed overview of the land grabs that are the principal manifestation of a new geopolitics of food.”—Lester R. Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge

“The remarkable Fred Pearce has done it again: in The Land Grabbers he opens up vastly important new terrain few of us have even noticed. When the rich and powerful start buying up the planet's fundamental resources—land and water—from the poor and vulnerable, we'd all better notice.”—James Gustave Speth, author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

“Wherever on this earth poor villagers, agribusiness magnates, ignorant or corrupt governments, petrodollars, commodity traders and hungry multitudes come together, Fred Pearce is at the nexus, brilliantly reporting on the biggest swindle of the 21st century. With the modern landgrab, the enclosure movement has attained planetary proportions and Pearce is without peer in describing the dire consequences of this ongoing human and environmental disaster.”—Susan George, author, Hijacking America, board president, the Transnational Institute
"In The Land Grabbers, Pearce has produced a powerful piece of journalism that illuminates how the drive for expanded food production is transfomring the planet. anyone who cares where her next meal is coming from should read it."–Washington Post

Kirkus Reviews
New Scientist environmental and development consultant Pearce (The Coming Population Crash, 2010, etc.) documents widespread global "land grabs" by moneyed interests and the dire consequences for poor people around the world. In this wide-ranging but efficient book, the author looks at how purchases by foreign investors of massive tracts of land in countries in Africa, South America, the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere have often caused local ruin. Impoverished residents of these countries, he writes, often lose their land, homes and livelihoods as they are evicted to make way for new projects. Most often those projects are massive industrial farms, with the majority of profits enriching foreign companies and their investors. Pearce is acclaimed for his keen environmental reporting in books about water shortages (When the Rivers Run Dry, 2006) and climate change (With Speed and Violence, 2007), and here he discusses environmental impact, particularly regarding projects in which water sources are diverted or forests are razed. More often the author focuses on financial and societal consequences, particularly for those at the bottom of the economic totem pole. These big-ticket investment deals often influence and distort governments and the law. In one section, he details how international investment agreements can create an environment in which "[e]ven if the locals are starving or parched with thirst, in law the rights of the foreign investor come first." He also writes of how even well-meaning conservation groups' efforts to create protected wildlife zones in some countries can have the side effect of uprooting local residents. Pearce paints a bleak picture, with many seemingly insurmountable problems, but he provides an important look at a problem rarely discussed in the mainstream media. A well-researched, informative and accessible look at important economic and agricultural issues.

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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.

Meet the Author

Fred Pearce is an award-winning former news editor at New Scientist. Currently its environmental and development consultant, he has also written for Audubon, Popular Science, Time, the Boston Globe, and Natural History and writes a regular column for theGuardian. He has been honored as UK environmental journalist of the year, among other awards. His many books include When the Rivers Run Dry, With Speed and Violence, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, and The Coming Population Crash.

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