The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth by Fred Pearce

Notes/excerpts from the excellent book by Fred Pearce (well-worth reading in full!)  Page references are from the kindle version.

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. 71

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. 76

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.” 89

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. 97

Omot watched them: “Two years ago, the company began chopping down the forest and the bees went away. They need thick forest. We used to sell honey. We used to hunt with dogs too. But after the farm came, the animals here disappeared. Now we only have fish to sell.” And with the company draining the wetland, they will probably be gone soon, too. 124

Gambella is the poorest province in one of the world’s poorest nations—a lowland appendix in the far southwestern corner of Ethiopia. Geographically and ethnically, the hot, swampy province feels like part of the new neighboring state of South Sudan, rather than the cool highlands of the rest of Ethiopia. Indeed, Gambella was effectively in Sudan when it was ruled by the British from Khartoum, until they left in 1956. For the half century since, the government in Addis Ababa has ruled here, but it has invested little and cared even less for its Nilotic tribal inhabitants, whose jet black skin and tall elegant physique mark them out from the lighter-skinned and shorter highlanders. The livestock-herding Nuer, who frequently cross the border into South Sudan, and the Anuak, who are farmers and fishers, are peripheral to highland Ethiopia in every sense. 127

Of late, the central government in Addis Ababa has stopped pretending that the province of Gambella doesn’t exist. It now seems intent on taming a populace that might prefer rule from Juba, the capital of South Sudan. In practice, that means bringing in foreign agribusiness and collecting the province’s dispersed population in state-designated villages, while their forests, fields, and hunting grounds are handed over to outsiders. In the service of capitalism, the Gambella “villagization” program will relocate a domestic population much in the manner of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. 139

This was land newly acquired by my first land grabber—Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Al Amoudi, a Saudi oil billionaire with large holdings in Ethiopian plantations, mines, and real estate. In 2011, Fortune magazine put his personal wealth at more than $12 billion. Ethiopian born, he is often described as the world’s richest black man. He is a million-dollar donor to the Clinton Foundation, and also a close confidant of Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi and his ruling party, which had granted a sixty-year concession on 25,000 acres of Gambella to Al Amoudi’s company, Saudi Star. Al Amoudi has been eyeing agriculture since the world food price spike in 2008 sent Saudi Arabia into a panic about its future food supplies. He is intent on shipping most of his intended produce, including in excess of a million tons of rice a year, to Saudi Arabia. There he has been feted by the king for making investments abroad to keep the kingdom fed. To smooth the wheels of commerce, Al Amoudi has recruited one of Zenawi’s former ministers, Haile Assegdie, as chief executive of Saudi Star. Saudi Star’s concession is based around the Alwero dam built in the 1980s to irrigate a state cotton farm that never happened. 150

Al Amoudi is digging a 20-mile canal from the dam to irrigate rice paddies. Once the old state farm is watered, he wants to expand to at least 620,000 acres, to grow sunflowers and corn. 160

boss’s recent media statement that “land grabbing poses no harm on the environment or on the local community.” 164

describing how Al Amoudi and his company were destroying his world. Hearing his testimony of ancestral connection with this patch of forest, and his determination to keep it, I was struck by how most Westerners have lost any sense of place and attachment to the land. 168

I move around all the time, and buy and sell houses without feeling ties to the soil. But here in Gambella, their land is like their blood. It is everything. And to lose it would be to lose their identity. Omot insisted Saudi Star had no right to be in his forest. The company had not even told the villagers that it was going to dig a canal across their land. “Nobody came to tell us what was happening.” 169

Omot had no doubt that the purpose of the new village was to clear them and others off land taken from them to give to Saudi Star. So far, his family and their neighbors had refused to go, even though their children walked to the school at Pokedi on a Monday morning and didn’t return until Friday evening. “In our culture, going to a different place is unusual. You get different people and there is quarreling,” he told me, 174

We won’t go unless we are forced. God gave us this land.” Another truck rumbled past, spraying dust over the tiny forest community—a community that has found itself ostracized by its own government and under siege from a Saudi billionaire. After the truck had gone, I noticed a large, dead stork in the road. One of the women headed off down the road with a bucket, on a long walk to find water. 178

Several dozen women from the nearby village of Iliya, which woke in 2009 to find itself surrounded by the Karuturi concession, now earn a dollar a day tending the oil-palm nursery rather than their own fields. Iliya is the home village of Nyikaw Ochalla, an exile I met in Reading, England. “All the land round Iliya has been taken,” he told me. “People have to work for the Indian company. They have no real choice.” Karuturi Global is owned by Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, an Indian engineer in his forties. Starting from scratch, he has become the world’s largest owner of greenhouses, many of them in Ethiopia. Under glass roofs, he has created the world’s largest rose-growing business, selling 650 million stems a year. This is a stunning 10 percent of the global market. He employs ten thousand people in Africa alone. But Karuturi reckons he cannot sell any more roses. The market is sated. So he is moving into mainstream agriculture. “I want to be among the top four or five integrated agri-product companies in the world. And I will implement this vision out of Africa,” he says. He plans on having two and a half million acres of land under his plows in Africa—a third of them in Ethiopia and, he suggested in late 2011, another third in Tanzania. Karuturi promises to invest a billion dollars in the virgin fields of Gambella alone. Flash floods from the River Baro obliterated thousands of acres of the first corn harvest in late 2011, but his response was to bring in Dutch consultants to prevent a repetition. He means business. His investment should see handsome returns both for him and for his U.S. private equity investors, including Bethesda-based Monsoon Capital and Boston-based Sandstone Capital. The investment seems set to create Africa’s largest privately owned farm, and make Karuturi one of the world’s largest producers of a range of foodstuffs, able to take on long-standing U.S. and European commodity giants like Cargill, ADM, and Dreyfus. 207

Most of the millions of acres of land being bought up across the plains of Africa, the paddy fields of southeast Asia, the forests of South America, and the steppes of Russia is ostensibly sold or leased as undeveloped land without owners. But in reality very little land in the world today is unclaimed or unused. When men like Karuturi and Al Amoudi call the land they are occupying “empty” and “virgin,” they are as misguided as the colonial adventurers who came this way a century before. To the locals, every inch of the land is owned. The biggest prize is known to geographers as the Guinea Savannah Zone: a great expanse of grasslands half the size of the United States, occupying a huge arc of twenty-five countries between the rain forest and the deserts—through West Africa to Sudan, then south through Kenya and Ethiopia to Zambia and Mozambique in the south. The World Bank calls these one and a half million square miles “the world’s last large reserves of underused land.” Yet, these lands are also the home of 600 million African peasant farmers and herders, approaching a tenth of the world’s population. They are among the world’s poorest people. They badly need economic development. The question is whether the new colonialists are there to develop Africa or ransack its resources. Will they feed the world—or just the bottom line? For the moment, Africa’s leaders seem convinced that foreign investment in mechanized big farming is the way forward. If they can turn their bush into American-style prairie, they will. The ambition of Karuturi and Al Amoudi in Gambella is matched by that of Ethiopian prime minister Zenawi. He has now been in office for sixteen years. In that time his political philosophy has shifted from Marxism to capitalism. Under his rule, his country has not suffered a repeat of famines on the scale that blighted it in the 1970s and 1980s. But he has grown exasperated by its failure to energize smallholders to feed Ethiopia’s fast-growing population. Zenawi is now offering outsiders the chance to invest in its soil. The government’s current five-year plan promises to lease 7.5 million acres for large-scale mechanized agriculture by 2015, much of it in the rebellious tribal borderlands of Gambella. Ironically, it is only because of Ethiopia’s socialist past, in which all land was nationalized, that the foreign capitalists will be able to move in. In Gambella, as in much of rural Africa, traditional customary land rights are still recognized by the people. But Ethiopian governments have a long history of moving people around, from state to state and into villages where none existed before. Gambella is scattered with communities of Zenawi’s compatriot Tigrayans who were given land here after the great famine in the 1980s. Near the village of Abobo, I saw one Tigrayan-owned farm growing 10,000 acres of cotton. Along the road were power lines—a rare sight in Gambella. Other highlanders have come too, setting up businesses and taking land. In all, highlanders now make up nearly half of the 300,000 inhabitants of Gambella province. They are much resented, by the Anuak in particular. Now the government is moving the locals too—out of the bush and their tiny settlements and into larger centralized villages. The federal affairs minister, Shiferaw Teklemariam, announced in late 2010 that the “villagization” program would resettle 180,000 people in forty-nine villages between 2011 and 2013. That is more than half of the entire population of Gambella, and will include the great majority of those living outside Gambella town. Villagization had just begun when I visited. It seemed to be a rush job, done with little or no local consultation, and certainly no regard for the wishes of those being moved off their traditional lands. One foreign aid worker I spoke to remembered being called, not long before, to a meeting with the Gambella president Omod Obong “at which he suddenly said that he’d drawn up a villagization plan for the province. It was the first time we had heard about… 226

I began to realize that the people we were carrying were often trying to farm their old land while satisfying the government by living in the new villages. I heard mixed reactions to the villagization. The Nuer, traditionally seminomadic pastoralists who migrate across the plains between Ethiopia and Sudan, seemed more at ease than the Anuak. 270

The new village’s ranks of identical round Nuer-style straw huts with their distinctive conical roofs contained an estimated thousand people. More were arriving all the time. The government had promised to give each household “up to” 10 acres near the new village, and to provide grain and cooking oil for up to eight months. But the villagers grumbled that there were only three wells, and no electricity generator, grain store, or school. 275

“The government talks about developing empty land, but there is no land that is empty in our culture. If you go anywhere, the people will tell you who owns any bit of land. The land is our supermarket and our game reserve.” This is not just rhetoric. Much of what Karuturi calls virgin land is simply fallow, part of the cycle of shifting cultivation traditionally practiced by the Anuak. The high quality of the soils is testimony to their farming skill. Driving across the province with the Anuak, I heard about their often violent cultural landscape. I was told of killing fields where they had shed blood in battles with Nuer pastoralists, Tigrayan farmers, and government troops; of the clearing, draining, and occupation of their land by foreign farmers; of the sacred hill in Gambella town where highlanders had built an Orthodox church; and an ancestral cemetery near Iliya that had been plowed up by Karuturi. But what almost any Anuak wants to talk about most urgently is their experience of “the massacre.” On December 13, 2003, highlanders and government troops went hunting Anuak. Literally. They targeted and killed teachers, government officials, and church pastors—many of them easily identifiable by the Anuak tradition of removing their front lower teeth. Human Rights Watch estimates some 420 people were killed that day, and many homes destroyed. 284

The Anuak believe they are the victims of slow genocide. But the fear is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling. One aid worker told me: “In recent years they have forgotten how to farm. They used to grow tomatoes and okra and sell them in the markets. Now most of the food in the markets is imported from the highlands.” Efforts to stimulate business through microfinance have faltered. “They are not greedy. The opposite really. They tend to share the money out and not to invest.” A UNICEF study in 2005 concluded that even before the foreign land grabs and villagization program, Gambella was characterized by a “climate of fear” in which “the deracination of indigenous people in rural areas of Gambella is extreme. It is very likely that Anuak culture will completely disappear in the not-so-distant future.” I saw much evidence that the bleak prognosis was being accelerated by the land grabs. 304

the tea grower Verdanta Harvests, which has a fifty-year lease on 7,500 acres of forest claimed by the Majangir people, and Sannati Agro Farm Enterprise, which has 25,000 acres in the far south of the province to grow rice for export to the United States. My next destination was a new village called Gok Pipach. We drove past a World Food Programme food store and a refugee camp, through denser bush where there were signs of shifting cultivation still being practiced. But the settlement itself was a product of the recent villagization process. The people here had been moved from land now needed by the land grabbers. Before they moved, they had been “a big community,” said one of the elders, 315

“We had our own grinding mill and a savings account that we used to help the poor and send students to seminary school.” But they had been much diminished: “Before the massacre there were a thousand of us. Now there are about three hundred.” Bitterly, the elder related how, during the massacre, the army had destroyed the school and clinic in their old village. He laughed. Now the government required them to move so they could get back the services the army had previously destroyed. “The government propaganda says the people are moving willingly. But it’s not true,” he said. Worse, the government broke its promises. “They promised us a well, but it is not deep enough and it isn’t functioning anymore. They promised us food but they only came once, and then brought only wheat. They said we could keep our old farms, but then when we got here they said we couldn’t go back.” The conversation turned again to land, the touchstone of everything for the Anuak. “We have decided, each of us, that in the rainy season we will go back and cultivate our ancestral land,” he said. “It is only an hour away, and it is better land than here. If they try and stop us, conflict will start. We will fight for our land.” Maybe this was bravado, but there was no mistaking the gravity he intended when he concluded: “We are poor. If you are poor and a rich man comes and offers help, you will accept. But if he doesn’t keep his promise, he will become your enemy.” There is another side to the land grab. An environmental tragedy is unfolding in this remote corner of Africa, one I saw repeatedly in my journeys. While traditional land uses such as shifting cultivation and pastoralism can often coexist with wildlife, there is simply no room for wild animals when intensive mechanized farming moves in. And here in Gambella, the giant foreign-owned farms imperil the second-largest mammal migration on the African continent. 320

The antelope were white-eared kob. Most of them came from South Sudan, traveling across the open woodland bush at the end of the dry season in search of Gambella’s open water and wetlands. More than a million of them are estimated to come this way each year. Along with a scattering of elephants, another endangered antelope, the Nile lechwe, and the giant shoebill stork, they were the main reason for the announcement back in 1974 of the Gambella National Park. The park, which also hosts hundreds of baboons, bushbucks, duikers, hartebeest, water bucks, buffalo, reedbuck, and roan, is a huge region of swamp, woodland, and wet grassland stretching from the Baro River in the north to the Gilo in the south. It occupies much of central Gambella. But, while the park has a handful of rangers, it is little more than a mark on a map. It has no management plan and has never been formally declared. Its northern boundary includes much of the Karuturi concession. Within its borders too are the Alwero dam and the old state farm recently reallocated to Saudi Star, plus much of the land that the company anticipates taking over soon. Yet neither company has conducted so much as an assessment of the environmental impact of their activities in the park. I asked Karuturi’s Sekhon about the wildlife. Yes, he said, the animals on his land were a “problem.” But he said he knew of no rules that prevented Karuturi from cultivating its concession. Some eighteen thousand cattle and more than twenty-five thousand people live in the park, mostly along the riverbanks and roads. Park rangers sporadically chase Anuak hunters through the swamp grasses, which can grow up to 3 yards high. On the road to Nyininyang, near the South Sudan border, I spotted a small gang with dogs, rifles, and a couple of chestnut-colored kob slung over their shoulders. They had set a fire that sent dense smoke and flames across the road. Back in Gambella town in the evening, I spoke to a park official. He took note of my report on the hunters. He would send his people out in the morning to check if they were still there, he said. But on the subject of the land grabbers—the real threat to wildlife in the park—he could only shrug his shoulders. It wasn’t his business. As a spokesman for the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, which oversees the parks, said: “We have a conflict with the agriculture department. We both want different things. We will see what happens.” This is tragic. Properly managed, the wildlife could provide economic development for Gambella through tourism, while allowing the people to maintain their ways of life. 342

Sanne van Aarst of the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Center at Addis Ababa University says that, as the home of the second-largest wildlife migration in Africa, Gambella has the same tourist potential as the Serengeti. But mechanized agriculture is the only item on the government’s development agenda. 362

The government has asked the conservation authority to “re-demarcate” the park’s boundaries to make way for the new farms. There are three options, according to the conservation authority’s Cherie Enawgaw. Each involves moving the park boundaries south and west by several dozen miles. But his own maps of wildlife sightings, produced to help with the demarcation, show that all three options will block migration paths and allow “wildlife core areas” to be plowed up. After my visit, Ethiopia’s prime minister was dining with his Indian counterpart in Addis. Lauding the Karuturi investment, he said: “I am often accused of being too pro-India. My answer is: guilty as charged.” He went on: “We want to develop our land to feed ourselves rather than admire the beauty of fallow fields while we starve.” His UK ambassador Berhanu Kebede wrote within days in the Guardian newspaper in London that Karuturi and the other new farms “bring huge benefits. Not just the jobs, houses, schools, clinics and other infrastructure, but knowledge transfer, skills training, tax revenue and other benefits to the workers and to the country as a whole.” I saw none of these benefits. But, even if they happen, the questions raised are huge. Is it ethical for a country such as Ethiopia, repeatedly hit by famine, to give up thousands of square miles of its best farmland to foreigners, with the promise that they can take the produce back home or sell it around the world? Is the concentration of land in fewer hands an essential part of the economic development that the poor world so desperately needs? Or will it create a new underclass of pauperized landless peasants? Arriving home in London, I noticed on my bookshelf a book about the Irish famine of the 1840s. It was about a time when absentee British landlords annexed a country to grow food for their own nation’s needs—and continued to export that food while a million of the Irish starved. They told themselves all the while that the market would deliver food for the famished. It did not. 364

A more stable market? A lower price for consumers? Was that what I was creating as I played the trading game? Did my buying and selling bring down prices, reduce risk, and keep a box of cornflakes cheap? Placing my bets in the visitors’ center felt the way it looked on the trading floor—like speculating in a market to make a profit. It also felt more like what has been going on in the real world in the past five years, as market prices for corn and rice, vegetable oil and coffee, wheat and sugar have yo-yoed like the stakes in some demented game. 407

Harper’s magazine on a newsstand. The cover story was titled “The Food Bubble—How Goldman Sachs and Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away with It.” I read it over my burger. This was food for the brain. I was filled with a sense of recognition. This, perhaps, was what I had really been doing when I played the commodities game. They first noticed the food price bubble in early 2007 in Mexico. The price of tortillas, the staple food of the Mexican poor, quadrupled in two months. Around seventy thousand Mexicans marched through the capital in protest, waving the corn flatbreads as they went. Angry mobs of housewives besieged President Felipe Calderón. In subsequent months, there were food riots across North and West Africa—in Cameroon, where forty people died; in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Mozambique, Mauritania, Morocco, and Ivory Coast. For the world’s poorest people in the poorest countries, food is by far the biggest household expense, taking up to 80 percent of income. Those who ate rice, or bread made from wheat, or tortillas made from corn, seemed equally affected. They were hungry, and angry. In Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, bread prices tripled. There were all-night queues outside bakeries. As we shall see later, some Arab analysts say this was the beginning of the anger that brought down Hosni Mubarak three years later. In the Philippines, the world’s largest rice importer, rice prices doubled. In Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of women working for a dollar a day in the garment sweatshops of Dhaka put aside their sewing machines to protest. In those panicky months, fears of long-term food shortages returned for the first time in almost half a century. It was the moment when people realized that markets might not always deliver their daily bread. In the Gulf, the authorities began hoarding food. Oman bought up two years’ rice reserves and put them into warehouses. Even rich European countries began to wonder whether they would always be able to buy the food their people needed. British food secretary Hilary Benn said that “with rising prices and increasing demand across the globe, we cannot take our food supply for granted.” In a call for food self-sufficiency not seen since the Second World War, when besieged Britons were urged to “dig for victory,” his government proposed encouraging consumption of more homegrown food. The UN began to talk about a new kind of famine—urban famine. In the past, it was people in the countryside who died when their crops failed. Now, in the cities, “we are seeing more urban hunger than ever before. We are seeing food on the shelves but people unable to afford it,” said Josette Sheeran, the director of the World Food Programme. When rural people starve, they head for relief stations. But when urban people starve, they start riots. In April 2008, UN peacekeepers in Haiti fired at people looting shops in Port au Prince. Four died. Days later, the prime minister was toppled. The UN’s emergency relief coordinator John Holmes warned that rising food prices threatened global security. What had happened? What had caused the simultaneous surges in prices of corn, wheat, and rice, the world’s three major grains? 416

more immediate market influences. Corn stocks were being consumed by a boom in biofuels. In 2007, the United States earmarked more than a third of its corn harvest to making ethanol for the nation’s automobiles, diverting surpluses from export markets. Wheat was hit by droughts. Maybe this was climate change kicking in. In any event, poor rains hit two major wheat-exporting countries. Shipments from Australia fell by 60 percent, from Ukraine by 75 percent, pushing up demand for U.S. wheat in particular. What of rice? Its prices rose more than either corn or wheat. Rice production around the world had flatlined for a decade, but so had consumption, because many Asians had been eating less rice and more bread and meat. However, when bread prices surged at the end of 2007, many Asians switched back to rice, pushing up demand in a tight market. Then oil prices soared to almost $150 a barrel during mid-2008, feeding into food prices through the cost of everything from chemical fertilizer to fueling tractors to getting food to market. The world food summit met in June 2008 at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Rome headquarters. By then, the International Monetary Fund had recorded an 80 percent rise in the world’s food prices since the start of 2007. Nations agreed with the World Bank that biofuels were mostly to blame, that the disruption it caused to the corn market had spilled over into the wider grain market. But there were doubts. For while biofuels certainly pushed up international demand for grains, overall the global harvest for the big three grains also broke records in 2007. At 2.1 billion tons, it was 5 percent up on the previous year. It didn’t seem obvious that supply and demand in the grain markets could have caused the price surge. So did something else trigger it, by amplifying modest price signals into a full-blown crisis? 451

For a while, some economists had been arguing that the freer markets that Zoellick saw as the solution to high food prices were in fact part of the problem. They were saying that speculation had played a big role in the price spikes of 2008. A group of eighteen leading U.S. economists wrote to the U.S. Congress saying that deregulation of financial markets had “encouraged hyper-speculative activities by market players who had no interest in the underlying physical commodities being traded. This produced severe price swings.” This talk was sacrilege, and remains so in many quarters. But read the words of the traders themselves rather than the economic theorists, and there is a lot of support for the view that it was speculators that turned a supply-and-demand problem into a full-blown crisis, one in which—as the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, noted in 2011—an extra 40 million people have been made chronically hungry. The investment bank Goldman Sachs concluded in a research report in 2008 that “without question, increased fund flow into commodities has boosted prices.” Its take was that the speculators were simply anticipating events in the real world. But to many it looked more like the speculators were creating those events. And to some that looked unacceptable. In the summer of 2008, financier George Soros told the German magazine Stern that speculators were distorting prices in a way that “is like hoarding food in the midst of a famine.” At U.S. Senate hearings around the same time, hedge fund manager Michael Masters said: “It’s not like real estate and stocks—when food prices double, people starve.” There was a new narrative emerging. It said that food futures—previously a rather humdrum business that helped fund farmers and keep prices stable—had been taken over by speculators in the finance markets, and in the process it had turned into a dangerous beast that bankrupted farmers and caused worsening price volatility. It said that the same kinds of forces that had overwhelmed the world’s banks in 2008 were disrupting food markets too. And there was an extra wrinkle. It appeared that, as the banking crisis escalated, investors seeking a safe haven were buying into commodities and, by 2010, were driving up food prices once more. The argument, in essence, is this. Until the 1980s, there was a mutually supportive relationship between farmers and market traders—a relationship that had existed since the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to the futures contracts system invented at the Chicago Board of Trade. But the deregulation of financial institutions in the 1980s undermined that relationship, by creating new forms of financial products that allowed speculators who knew nothing about farming or food trade to muscle in on the food futures business. New kinds of financial derivatives were created, somewhat analogous to those behind the subprime mortgage business, whose collapse triggered the 2008 banking crisis. Traditional futures are themselves a form of derivative, of course. But the new forms began in 1991, when Goldman Sachs packaged up commodities futures of all sorts (from coffee and corn to oil and copper) into the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index. It then sold stakes in index funds. By buying them, investors were betting on the future price of a basket of commodities. The first index funds bumped along for years without attracting too much attention. Then in 2005, three things happened that suddenly made them extremely attractive to investors. First, real food prices started to push up after a long period of decline. Second, it started to look like investing in some of the other derivatives markets beloved by speculators, like subprime mortgages, might not be so clever. And third, with fear in the financial air, some influential research suggested that commodities were sure-fire winners in bad times. This, argued Frederick Kaufman, the author of the Harper’s piece on the food bubble, was when the commodity funds took off and the food bubble… 478

Riyadh charged nothing for the water pumped from beneath the desert, and virtually nothing for the fuel needed to pump it. This deluge of largesse generated full granaries but staggering inefficiency, not least in the use of water. Every ton of wheat required between 3,000 and 6,000 tons of water—three to six times the global average. Why such hydrological madness? Saudis thought they had water to waste because, beneath the Arabian sands, lay one of the world’s largest underground reservoirs of water. In the late 1970s, when pumping started, the pores of the sandstone rocks contained around 400 million acre-feet of water, enough to fill Lake Erie. The water had percolated underground during the last ice age, when Arabia was wet. So it was not being replaced. It was fossil water—and like Saudi oil, once it is gone it will be gone for good. And that time is now coming. In recent years, the Saudis have been pumping up the underground reserves of water at a rate of 16 million acre-feet a year. Hydrologists estimate that only a fifth of the reserve remains, and it could be gone before the decade is out. It took years for the truth to sink in. But in 2008, the Saudi government announced it would end wheat subsidies, with the aim of phasing out all production by 2016. Instead, it would import wheat to make Saudi bread. It decided to keep the cowsheds, but reduce their water needs by feeding the animals on foreign fodder. Then, just as the Saudis abandoned their former goal of food self-sufficiency, came the first world food price spike. A bit of food inflation didn’t worry the Saudis much. Almost any world price for grains was cheaper than growing them at home. What did scare the Saudis was when their key grain suppliers started banning exports to protect their home consumers. This eventuality, after all, was the nightmare that pushed the Saudis into attempting self-sufficiency in the first place. So, finding it impossible to feed itself, and unwilling to rely on international food markets, Saudi Arabia came up with Plan C. Under the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad, announced in 2008 in the wake of the global food crisis, the sheikhs decided to buy up farmland in foreign countries. 596

Sometimes the deals have found local acceptance. In the Catholic Philippines, rice-hunting al-Rajhi’s Far East Agricultural Investment homed in on the mainly Muslim island of Mindanao. The island is poor but fertile—and rebellious. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front controls parts of the island. Al-Rajhi signed up local chiefs for a scheme to plant rice, pineapples, bananas, and corn on up to 190,000 acres of communally owned land across Mindanao. The national government was in favor, and so too was the leader of the liberation front. Far from opposing foreign land grabs, he backed the deal “because it is coming from our Muslim brothers.” But the path has not always been smooth. The Bin Laden Group—an eighty-year-old Saudi family industrial conglomerate with an infamous black-sheep son—led a consortium to grow rice on more than a million acres in the Indonesian province of Papua. At one swoop, it gave the Saudis a third of the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate, a $5 billion megaproject being developed by the Indonesian government. But, while Indonesia is a Muslim nation, Papua is unruly, and much of it is not Muslim. In mid-2010, the Merauke project was put on hold by its director after opposition from local tribal animists and Christians reluctant to give up their land to Muslims from either Jakarta or Jeddah. The Bin Laden Group is also behind a scheme to grow rice in Africa. The other main backer is Sheikh Saleh Kamel, a veteran Saudi billionaire who runs a satellite TV group. The AgroGlobe project aims to produce 7 million tons of rice a year within seven years on 1.7 million acres of irrigated land in the West African Muslim states of Mali, Senegal, Sudan, Mauritania, and Niger, and in northern Nigeria. It promises to recruit Thai rice experts to help West Africa cut its rice imports while simultaneously supplying the Saudis. But these plans too seem destined to create domestic strife among the hosts. The Senegalese government is keen. “We are offering Saudi Arabia 400,000 hectares of farmland,” a senior official said in late 2010. Most of the land is on the banks of the River Senegal, which will provide the water for irrigation in an arid land. Contracts say that 70 percent of the rice would be destined for Saudi mouths, and only 30 percent for locals. So this is a water grab as well as a land grab. The government says existing rice farmers there “have no problems with these lease deals.” But traditional farmers do object, and local cattle herders will lose vital dry-season pastures near the river. 625

One assessment at the end of 2009 found that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states were responsible for a third of the land purchased, leased, or under offer to foreigners by poorer countries. 659

The Gulf’s largest private equity company, Dubai-based Abraaj Capital, said in 2008 that it had acquired 800,000 acres of “barren” farmland to grow rice and wheat in the Pakistani provinces of Punjab, Sindh, and Baluchistan. Others securing land in the Punjab, Pakistan’s breadbasket, included the Emirates Investment Group, a private group in Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi–based Al Qudra Holding. If even a fraction of this goes ahead, the implications could be grim for small Pakistani farmers, most of whom are sharecropping tenants of feudal families with vast landholdings, who dominate Pakistani politics as well as the military. They will lose control of their plots of land, and will probably not even find regular work as laborers on the new mechanized farms. UAE officials also said its companies had acquired 700,000 acres of Sudan, paying virtually nothing, on condition only that they invest. But, as in Pakistan, details of these deals remain sketchy. There have been lots of promises and pledges, but few statements detail specific projects, and there has been even less activity on the ground. 662

Indonesia’s agriculture minister Suswono went wooing Gulf states in 2010, offering 19 million acres of “sleeping land” for agribusiness investment. The veteran chief minister of Sarawak, the Borneo province of Malaysia, was looking for Gulf investment in his “Halal hub,” 190,000 acres of former rain forest being turned into farms for him by a Taiwanese company. Abdul Taib Mahmud, who is old enough to remember the Japanese landing in Borneo during the Second World War, was undaunted by fears of a new land invasion. He returned with a promise of a billion dollars from Perigon Advisory, an investment fund based in Bahrain. 699

By late 2011, the Tanzanian government had emptied the first camp, the 60,000-acre Lugufu camp, which had been home to 100,000 people. Rastetter’s team, Agrisol, told me they would soon be growing corn and soy and raising poultry, initially for sale within Tanzania. Pharos promises worker training, community development funds, and a system to buy produce from outgrowers, but the heart of the scheme will be a vast expanse of commercialized, high-tech agriculture—Iowa in Tanzania. 723

While the Western media concentrated on the politics of reform, many on the streets were protesting as much about bread prices as corruption. They were waving baguettes as they marched into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Tunis’s November 7 Square (now renamed Mohamed Bouazizi Square, after the vegetable seller whose suicide sparked the revolution). In Yemen they turned on their leaders with chapatis strapped to their temples. The only Gulf state directly impacted by the uprising was Bahrain. But this was uncomfortably close for many of the region’s autocrats. Bahrain is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia. Governments reacted to shore up their popularity. Saudi Arabia increased food subsidies twice. Kuwait promised fourteen months of free food rations. Bahrain simply handed out cash as the people rioted against the ruling Al Khalifa royal family. The politics of food is now a serious issue for the princes of petroleum. And right now, cultivating foreign soil seems like their only salvation. Chapter 4. 732

the chairman of the Southern Sudan Land Commission, Robert Lado, told Reuters in 2009 that “our land is communal. An individual can only sell it when there is consensus among members of that community.” The country’s new Land Act says that “customary land rights . . . shall have equal force and effect in law with freehold or leasehold rights.” Deng concludes that “despite the media attention devoted to this investment, there is little evidence that the lease between Heilberg and Matip is anything more than an agreement between two companies, neither of which appears to be the legal owner of the land.” But in the badlands of Mayom county, the force of the general may matter more than the niceties of law. That looks like Heilberg’s view. He told Fortune magazine in 2009: “As long as General Matip is alive, my contract is good.” Probably the outcome of the continuing tribal dispute—which if anything has been inflamed by the end of the civil war—will determine whether Heilberg gets his hands on the land he claims. Heilberg is the land grabbers’ land grabber. He operates in a universe where, if you believe his own rhetoric, law comes from the barrel of a gun. He told Rolling Stone magazine: “This is Africa. The whole place is like one big mafia—and I’m like a mafia head.” He believes we live in a post-state world, the nightmare of mayhem encapsulated by Robert Kaplan in his famous essay, The Coming Anarchy. “When food becomes scarce, the investor needs a weak state that does not force him to abide by any rules,” says Heilberg. He obviously likes this kind of stuff. But the reality doesn’t seem so different. Rolling Stone dubbed him the “capitalist of chaos.” The capitalist of chaos has high-profile friends in the United States. His vice chairman and guide through African politics has been Joseph C. Wilson, a former Clinton ambassador in six African countries who fell out with the CIA after denouncing the agency’s claim that Saddam Hussein had obtained uranium from Niger. 774

seeing the death knell of the financial instrument—of the paper world. We’re going to see the rise of the commodity.” But which commodity is he really after? He talks now of introducing mechanized prairie-style agriculture to his piece of South Sudan, perhaps bringing in Israeli technocrats. But as recently as 2008, Jarch described plans to “lift the light sweet crude . . . once South Sudan secedes from Khartoum.” Some say that remains his real aim. Certainly there is no sign of him actually breaking the ground 794

Given its lushness, South Sudan is also surprisingly empty. It is the size of France but has only an eighth as many people. They are mostly exceedingly poor. Only a quarter of the adult population is literate. Grabbing land in South Sudan must look to some as easy as stealing candy from a baby. Certainly, its government has been handing out long leases on prodigious amounts of land to people with dubious track records, and no obvious agricultural pedigree. A study by the NGO Norwegian People’s Aid concluded that at independence, it had already parceled out to foreign investors 14 million acres, or 9 percent of the new state. A quarter of the country’s “green belt” around the capital, Juba, which has the richest soils 807

Garang, who died in an air accident in 2005, was vehemently opposed to the canal because he said it would steal South Sudan’s water. But now that the war is over, the new country’s government may have its price for allowing Egypt to grab its water. What a tragedy. With the ink still wet on its registration as the 193rd member of the United Nations, South Sudan is handing over its most vital resources to neighbors and silver-tongued “investors.” The fertile soils of the green belt, the precious waters of the Nile, and the rich heritage of wildlife in Boma National Park and the incomparable Sudd wetland—all are in danger of slipping into foreign hands. Handing over a tenth of your country on day one does not look like an auspicious start for a new nation. 906

Their tractors ran over our crops. We went to court. But the farm told us they didn’t need to consult with us because we didn’t have title deeds.” I remembered something Boone said on the farm the previous day: “I told Calvin we don’t need to negotiate with them if they haven’t got title. We should just get on.” Another bone of contention is farm chemicals. Burgess has repeatedly and flatly denied that his company uses dangerous pesticides of any sort. But he admits that the Kenyan government’s crop-spraying planes do take off from his airstrip when they blitz the quelea bird, a voracious crop eater. And Burgess himself does spray some herbicides. He noted in his blog in 2009, after introducing his new pilot: “We must be careful where we spray, especially near the perimeter of the farm and around our gardens, fish farm, and aquatic ponds.” Indeed so. The locals told me they blamed wind-blown spray for killing 150 acres of kale, and said several people had died after their stomachs swelled after spraying, something that had never happened here before. The deaths may have nothing to do with Dominion, of course, but the locals believe they do. And Odindo said: “If you get sick and rush to Dominion, they’ll pay you a thousand shillings to shut up.” 1046

So far, however, the Wildlife Service has not heeded this, and is drawing up its own conservation plan with Dominion. “They want to drain half the swamp and turn the rest into a game park,” Ongwek told me. It looks like the final indignity for the locals. The theft of their swamp will be complete. Rather than curbing Dominion’s annexation of the swamp, the Wildlife Service has been dispatching police to apprehend locals. A few days before I visited, they had arrested Charles Nyango for cultivating a piece of swamp near the Lake Kanyaboli causeway. Ongwek took me to meet Nyango at the crime scene. “We were beaten and taken to the police station. We were charged with burning papyrus and resisting arrest,” he said. “Yes, we were cultivating a protected area,” he agreed. But then he pointed down the road. We were standing only a couple of hundred yards from where Dominion’s green-liveried John Deere heavy equipment was at that moment clearing land. There was no sign of Dominion employees being arrested. It was plain injustice, he said. “We’ve been farming here a long time. Who is doing the real damage? Who is burning hundreds of acres of papyrus here? Dominion.” Ongwek had one more thing to show me before we left. He pulled from his raincoat a sheet of paper, with an official-looking stamp. It was a permit he had obtained the day before from Yaswa Security Services, which works for Dominion. The permit read: “To whom it may concern. Allow John Atieno [Ongwek], the community chairman Siaya district, to pass along with visitors to Daraja and back today, the 15th February 2011. This has been authorised by the farm manager Mr Ronald.” The road looked to me like a public road. It was outside the farm fence. I had been driving freely down it. But Ongwek said the local villagers needed written permission to go there. It seemed more like one of Burgess’s old prisons than the plains of Africa. 1062

Chris Owalla, a Kisumu sociologist who had recently helped form a network of NGOs, the Friends of Yala Swamp, that wants people to map and claim their ancestral lands. “How do you measure the value of land to people?” he asked. “In any case, you can’t just say that if people don’t take the compensation you will come with the police and flood their land. People have rights, whether or not they have title. They should draw up their own plans for the swamp—with or without Dominion.” In law, the swamp is held in trust for the communities that live there by the two county councils in the area, Siaya and Bondo. But, so far as I could see, the counties did not consult the locals about their needs, and were only interested in extracting rent from the farm. Over the first twenty-five years, that should amount to 15 million Kenyan shillings, or $175,000. But, because of boundary disputes, the councils can’t agree who should get what. Perhaps embittered by this, Bondo county clerk Silas Odhiambo told me almost before I had sat down in his office: “Dominion should shut down. They don’t consult. They just do their own things.” Bondo council also claims that some of the rent due to Siaya went into a bank account in Kisumu, which mysteriously emptied. It is hard to know the truth of these stories. But Dominion says it paid the cash, and the Siaya administration says it never received it. Siaya’s officials could not find anyone to talk to me, but I met their councillor for much of the swamp and its part of Dominion Farm, Leonard Oriaro. He was new and becoming disillusioned. He said his fellow councillors did not take their duties as trustees of the swamp seriously. “They are looters, and they make problems for me because I am not. Now my electors are getting upset with me because I can’t change anything. I don’t think I will get elected again.” 1085

“If it all goes wrong, or if they lose interest, they just go home. We have to stay. This is our land.” 1113

Liberia discovered in 2011 that a third of U.S. food aid was being stolen by corrupt staff at the local office of World Vision. They had been allocating containers full of aid to towns that did not exist, and pilfering the contents on the road to nowhere. It was also common knowledge that a hundred cars donated by the mining company ArcelorMittall to help government officials get around the country had ended up instead, through no fault of ArcelorMittall, in the garages of the legislators who had signed off on a deal that gave the company mining rights in the north of the country. Even by African standards, Liberia is in a bad way. More than 80 percent of the population live on less than $1.25 a day. Only a quarter have access to clean drinking water. Of every thousand babies born in the country, seventy-six die before their first birthday. A whole generation has missed out on education, and almost half of all adults are illiterate. The country produces fewer than forty agriculture graduates, eighty medical graduates, and sixty teachers a year. It has virtually no trained secondary school teachers, and only one doctor for every twenty-five thousand people. “Even finding mechanics is hard,” said Hickey at Buchanan. When I told the boss of one of the plantations that I had found a reliable driver, he immediately called him up and booked him for a week taking around VIPs. 1313

Brownell argued for a revival of communal control of the country’s land and forests—something the government has sometimes seemed to encourage, but has failed to deliver. Its compromise has seen communities able to claim ownership of their soil, but not the trees that grow on it or the minerals beneath it. What use was that? 1364

At some point this country has got to deal with the tribal lands issue,” he said. By “deal with” he meant take them over. Give them to the land grabbers. But if that happens, Brownell believes, “things will explode again. The peace here remains fragile, threatened by the unresolved issue of who will exploit and who will benefit from Liberia’s natural resources.” The resource curse, complicated by the social divide between natives and Americo-Liberians, persists. 1370

Liberia looked to me like the sort of place that other African countries could become if they succumb to the land grabbers. Its foreign corporations run enclave economies that provide a modicum of order and basic services for their staff and families, but suck the life out of the rest of the country. They take big profits but fail to pay enough taxes to allow the wider society to benefit from their presence. They don’t buy local services or produce, and take their own produce out of the country as swiftly as they can. This is understandable. The chaos around these foreign enclaves encourages their isolation. But, as the fences are raised and the isolation increases, the chaos outside only intensifies. The companies are making money under siege. They are monopoly users of the country’s natural resources, and an impediment to its social, economic, and political development. This may not be inevitable. But those who argue that the arrival of foreign investment, of land grabbers, can hardly fail to improve local economies in Africa and elsewhere should take a close look at the reality of Liberia today. At the airport, around the corner from Firestone’s headquarters, there was an executive jet on the tarmac. 1384

He promised to supply land grabbers with workers at twenty-five cents an hour, which he boasted is less than half the rate in Indonesia, a seventh that in Malaysia, and a tenth that in Brazil. Land leases cost as little as two dollars per acre per year, he said. Water was free, and taxes virtually nonexistent. There were “no restrictions of foreign exchange; no limits on expat employees; full repatriation of profits, dividends and royalties and 100 percent foreign ownership permitted.” Competitors in the “race to the bottom” to play host for palm oil will find Sierra Leone already there. 1558

commodities—wheat, rice, corn, and soy—for SilverStreet. “We plan five 10,000-hectare farms in five countries: Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa.” I liked these guys. They were serious about Africa and Africans. Denton had no time for land grabbers who wanted to write peasant farmers out of their script for the continent. He had smallholders at the heart of his plans. One of his first farms, in Tete province in Mozambique, will be devoted entirely to buying their produce. And each of the five farms will have a training center for smallholders, he promised. He intends the centers to be run by a Harare-based charity, Foundations for Farming. Formerly called Farming God’s Way, it was set up by a born-again Christian and pioneer of environmentally friendly zero-tillage farming, Brian Oldreive. It sounded odd, but Oldreive, who was once a Zimbabwean test cricketer, is reputedly the best in the business. Denton was optimistic about the potential to improve the yields of smallholder farmers in Africa. “It’s not rocket science. It’s just about doings things at the right time. About getting farmers to prepare fields, drill holes, have seeds and fertilizer ready when the rains come, rather than trying to do it all in a rush. That way it’s easy to get from one ton a hectare to three tons.” But yields were no good without assured markets. Why produce more if the only result is collapsing prices? So Denton sees central farms as important too, providing secure markets for the produce of surrounding smallholders. “There is so much we can do to have a positive social impact,” said Vaughan-Smith as I left. We shall see. I believe he meant it. The trouble is that when the promises and ideals of the farm managers fail to match the imperatives of the investors and their bottom lines, it is quite clear who wins. The promises and ideals go out the window. Denton will ultimately take his instructions from the Danes and the Americans now. The rules for almost every company receiving investment capital require that the interests of the investors come first. Many companies investing in developing countries will subscribe to ethical aspirations, such as the Equator principles on social and environmental issues. Their banks and financiers may sign on to these as well. But the rules are couched in general terms. When push comes to shove, it is the bottom line that counts. That’s capitalism. Some people believe foreign land grabbers can be tamed by national laws. Don’t believe it. Many domestic laws governing international land transactions are trumped by international investment agreements (IIAs). A report published in 2011 by Johannesburg-based Standard Bank, a major funder of land grabs, made clear to me how important these agreements are. Written by the bank’s director for agricultural banking, Jacques Taylor, and its boss of sustainability, Karin Ireton, the report describes the legal landscape with brutal frankness. “IIAs are designed to protect investors, with few of the agreements including any investor obligation, or expressing and recognizing the rights of states to regulate in the public interest,” Taylor and Ireton said. But if investors have few obligations, host countries have many. “Foreign investment creates minimum international standards to which host countries must comply . . . host governments generally accept that they will provide the means for these investors to operate—for example, by providing them with the ability to draw water for agricultural purposes.” This right, they said, “may become a legitimate expectation of the foreign investor and therefore a legal entitlement under international law . . . even if it conflicts with existing or future needs in local communities for potable water, small-scale farming, small industries or subsistence use.” 1746

Even if the locals are starving or parched with thirst, in law the rights of the foreign investor come first. When governments sell or lease land to foreigners, the risks that they run “include cash-strapped local people losing not only their homes but also their source of food and future income as buyers secure the full right to crops and land.” If, say, a drought meant the investor didn’t get all the water stipulated in his contract, an international arbitration would probably conclude that this was “an expropriation of the right to operate the business” by the host country. At the least, heavy compensation would be due. Oh, and anyone who thinks governments would be justified in banning food exports by foreign investors during a famine could be in for a second think. “It is commonplace in investor agreements to provide investors with the capacity to operate their investment in accordance with their own needs,” the report says. “In the case of agricultural land investments, the right to export all or almost all of the production is presumed to be a part of most contracts.” Export bans “may be in breach of international investment law, if they impact the rights granted to foreign investors.” International law, it seems, is a land grabbers’ charter. 1776

Grosso. The Maggi soy revolution has made Mato Grosso the biggest magnet in Brazil for foreign investors. A fifth of the state is now foreign owned. But what happened there is now happening across the rest of the cerrado. There has been nothing like it in the world in the past twenty years. Brazilian agribusiness is the world’s largest market for agricultural machinery, and most of the equipment is destined for the cerrado. The cerrado produces 70 percent of Brazil’s crops. Much of the corn grown there is consumed in Brazil, and the sugarcane often goes to fill the tanks of the country’s ethanol-fueled vehicles. But the soy, cotton, coffee, and other crops largely go for export. Thanks to the cerrado, Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soy, beef, chicken, sugar, ethanol, tobacco, and orange juice. They call it Soylandia now. But don’t be misled. Brazilians don’t eat the produce from the rape of the cerrado. According to Conservation International’s environmental policy director Paulo Gustavo Prado, “some 60 percent of Brazil’s basic foodstuffs still come from campesinos farming fewer than 20 hectares. Big farms are for export.” And that raises important questions when many see the industrializing of the cerrado as a model for transforming Africa’s huge expanses of unplowed and unfenced savanna grasslands. If it is, then the model won’t feed starving Africans. The contrasts between rich and poor in the cerrado and across Brazil are extreme, and seem to grow as the agricultural economy booms. The disparities that could arise in Africa could be a whole lot worse. The Mato Grosso is lost. 1979

He hired them to work on the farm too, “when we can; when they are qualified.” But the jobs were limited. Agrifirma’s high-tech farms have only 180 staff to run 100,000 acres. That is fewer than one employee for every 500 acres. He said he had given the local communities help in getting formal title to land they currently occupied. How much land was that? Some 1,200 acres—for three hundred people. That ought to be, as he said, “enough to grow their own food.” But it was a tiny fraction of the size of the farm and of what they must have had before. He aspired, he said, to deliver “the 3 Ps: people, profit, and the planet.” I am pleased he thinks about people and the planet, but profits come first. Rothschild and Slater, I am sure, would have it no other way. Across the table at lunch, Rodrigues’s new would-be investor had been sizing up the margins. I also sat next to a European lottery entrepreneur spending his winnings from other people’s bets by taking a flutter on another farm down the road. He said he had been introduced to the area by Rothschild. Driving back down the track to the main road, I passed a farm bought in 2007 by George Soros’s Adecoagro enterprise. Adecoagro is registered in Luxembourg but has farms in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. It claims to be “one of the leading companies in the production of food and renewable energy in South America.” It raised $300 million in early 2011 to buy more land and build a sugar-processing plant. The Qatar Investment Authority took a share. Next, I retraced my steps to Barreiras, the engine room of the current assault on the cerrado. I wanted to discuss the ecological importance of the region with a local biology professor, Fernando Lutz. 2019

cerrado. It contains a third of all Brazilian biodiversity, including some ten thousand plant species, more than four thousand of them found nowhere else. Or at least it used to. For the high plateaus of the cerrado, which are the most biodiverse, have proved the most tempting for farmers. The best is already gone. Lutz planned a three-year expedition to explore every foot of a 45-mile cross-section of the district of Formosa do Rio Preto, just north of Barreiras, to find out what it still contained. But he had better be quick, said Flavio Marques, an environmental adviser to the Bahia state prosecutor, who I met across town later that afternoon. Marques was sitting in front of a giant floor-to-wall satellite image of western Bahia. Green slivers of natural cerrado vegetation followed some river valleys. But elsewhere, and particularly in the plateau close to the border with neighboring Tocantins, including Formosa do Rio Preto, the coloring was almost universally pink. Pink denoted crops. 2034

Marques told me he was in charge of imposing in western Bahia the minimum environmental standards required by Brazil’s long-standing forest code. The code said that developers in the cerrado should leave 20 percent of the land intact as “legal reserves.” But he was in despair. Three years before, he had sent out a letter asking all farmers of more than 12,000 acres to show him details of their legal reserves. So far, he told me, only a tenth of them had bothered to reply. “The majority of them don’t have legal reserves, but they think they can get away with it,” he said. They are probably right. “The state of Bahia often offers amnesties. The private landowners have traditionally done whatever they want here.” 2046

Brazilian farmers freely admit they have never followed the law. Indeed during a high-profile campaign against the code in 2011, that admission became part of their case for changing it. “What is important is that 90 percent of Brazil’s farmers [should] no longer be considered illegal,” the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock said. “If all rural producers are unable to comply, the problem cannot lie with them.” And they won the argument. In May 2011, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies voted overwhelmingly to approve a drastically watered-down code. It sent the new code to President Dilma Rousseff for approval. She had supported the old code, and seemed uncertain how to respond. In the hiatus, Brazilian farmers continued to ignore it. If the code goes, said Lutz, “the consequences for the cerrado will be very bad.” But then he surprised me. For there was another, more troubling, side to the code, he said. If landowners kept reserves at all, they were often the places where they dumped traditional communities and sited encampments for their farm workers. They were often the only place that these marginalized people had left to grow crops to feed their families. He conceded that “strict policing of the environmental laws would, in practice, damage the lives of the poorest—the occupiers of the legal reserves.” It was a familiar story that I heard in country after country: the poor being squeezed between commercial farmers and the demands of conservationists. But sometimes “squeezed” isn’t the right word. It was far worse than that, said Marques. He mentioned the troubling case of a huge 730,000-acre farm, the Condominio Cachoeira do Estrondo, on the soy front line in Formosa do Rio Preto. The farm was, he said, the biggest landholding in Bahia and, until recently, far from official oversight on the border with Tocantins. The land occupied by the farm used to be the home of three traditional communities, with hundreds of members. “They owned the whole area.” Some were indigenous people, and some were residents of quilombos, the homes of the descendents of escaped African slaves. Then, in the 1970s, the area was bought by a businessman and real-estate owner from Rio de Janeiro, Ronald Levinsohn, who later became notorious over the collapse of a savings bank he owned. He established Condominio Cachoeira do Estrondo, which is not so much a farm as a small state. Levinsohn “gradually eased the former residents out, until they were housed in a few fragments of forest reserve,” said Marques. Then, Levinsohn divided the giant property into more than thirty individual farm operations—condominiums, as he called them—for sale. In recent years, as law enforcement has begun to encroach on the “condominiums,” lurid stories have surfaced about the way the farmers who run each condominium have treated employees and the people who live within and around their borders. In 2009, local newspapers reported near-slavery conditions. There were, they said, “watchtowers with armed guards at the entrance to the extensive farm.” The original inhabitants were confined to riverbanks, suffering violence and intimidation. Government agencies investigated and charged overseers on several of the farms with running what amounted to slave camps. The overseers picked up women and youths as young as sixteen on the street in nearby towns and from settlements near the farms. They took them to the farms, set them to work weeding the fields, and accommodated them in makeshift canvas shacks without mattresses, water, or sanitary facilities. Allegedly, they were held in debt bondage. They were prevented from leaving until it was time to pay their wages, from which were deducted the cost of the overpriced food and toiletries they were given at the camp. Meanwhile the federal environment agency IBAMA estimated that the farm operators between them had felled 190,000 acres of forest between 2004 and 2006. Levinsohn hit back. He claims to have been the first businessman to “believe in the cerrado,” which… 2051

CI’s help with mastering the minutiae of conservation bureaucracy meant he now had an environment license that allowed him to clear another 10,000 acres of wild grass and bush on his land. “We were waiting for the environmental license before going ahead with the clearance, and CI helped us get it,” he said. Not, perhaps, what they had in mind. But Kurek was keen to show how wildlife could thrive on his farm. “We see maned wolves here sometimes in the cornfields,” he told me as we drove around. “And rhea. They like the soya beans.” Right on cue, one of the large emu-like birds shot out of a soy field and ran down the track ahead of our SUV. We chased it for a mile before the exhausted bird found an exit back into the field. Nature is surviving here, but only just. 2145

me before I left for Paraguay. “Without knowing it, we could be losing a flora that is not just incredibly evolutionarily distinct, but of vital importance. The Chaco is a forgotten forest that we know next to nothing about. At a time when we fear climate change, it seems especially crazy to be losing species that are obviously incredibly well adapted to extreme climate.” The Chaco forest once extended north to Bolivia and Brazil, meeting the cerrado in southern Mato Grosso, and south deep into Argentina. It covered half a million square miles, five times the size of Britain. But it was gradually eaten away by farmers. Most of what survived into the twenty-first century was its thickest, hottest, most distinctive, and most forbidding heart—in Paraguay, where it covers two-thirds of the country but contains just 3 percent of its population. Now that heartland too is under threat. Not in the main from locals, who still hate the place, but from foreign land grabbers. 2195

The peace accords promised land reforms. But the entrenched power of the major landowners has ensured that the reforms have never happened. Less than 2 percent of the population still own 70 percent of the land—bad even by Latin American standards. The world of Keith and Zemurray persists. Today, Guatemala’s fast-growing population of 16 million, half of it Mayan, is mostly penned onto ever smaller plots of land in the southern highlands, while agribusiness dominates the fertile northern lowlands. Poor farmers are often forced to become seasonal laborers on the plantations, or cross the border into Mexico in the hope of making it into United States. Guatemala is among the world’s leading exporters of sugar and coffee—and, of course, bananas. U.S. companies like Dole, Del Monte, and United Fruit (now renamed Chiquita) are still there. Agribusiness and its representatives in parliament continue to rebuff land reforms. But there are new land grabbers, too. Drug traffickers, made rich by the huge fortunes to be gained from selling their products to North America and Europe, have moved in from Mexico and elsewhere. The traffickers have bought huge areas of lowland cattle ranches, both as a convenient way of laundering their profits and as a means of hiding the airstrips where cocaine going north and east can be switched from one small plane to another. The U.S. State Department reported in 2010 that “entire regions of Guatemala are now essentially under the control of drug trafficking organizations, the most visible of which is the Mexican group known as the Zetas.” Thanks to a toxic mix of corruption and intimidation of officials, they enjoyed a “prevailing environment of impunity.” The land is theirs. Along the way, drug gangs have trashed an estimated 740,000 acres of forests. Conservationists trying to protect the giant Maya Biosphere Reserve, the conservation crown jewels in the north of the country, told the New York Times: “There’s traffickers, cattle ranchers, loggers, poachers and looters. All the bad guys are lined up to destroy the reserve. You can’t imagine the devastation that is happening.” 2406

traction. The big landowners are bolstered by their connections to financiers, industrialists, and agribusiness, but they remain in charge. Tin-pot generals and weak and unscrupulous politicians of all hues have not helped. But often, of course, the politicians and generals are big land owners themselves. What land redistribution there has been is often being rolled back. Peru has seen a revival of mega-farms in its fertile Pacific coastal zone. Investment has surged since the repeal of 1960s land laws that limited land holdings. Today in the coastal provinces, thirty-four owners hold 555,000 acres, including a series of sugar complexes that resulted from privatization of state assets. Besides domestic companies, the Dallas-based Maple Energy has acquired 32,000 acres of what it describes as scorpion-infested desert in the Chira River valley—plus exclusive use of the river’s water. Maple expected to begin production of irrigated sugar to make ethanol for the United States in late 2011. Altima Partners, a British-owned hedge fund, has teamed up with Peru’s COMISA Corporation for a similar project on 64,000 acres in Piura. Next door in Bolivia, some two hundred Brazilians and Argentines have in the past two decades quietly bought more than 2 million acres of the giant eastern province of Santa Cruz to grow soy, and as much again for cattle ranching. In theory, the resource nationalism of Bolivia’s indigenous llama-herder-turned-president, Evo Morales, should be holding back the capitalist tide. But the province’s 1,200-mile border with Brazil is impossibly porous. And, as in Paraguay, Brazilian farmers have found that rules limiting any new land holdings to under 12,000 acres are no impediment to buying out land-rich local elites, says Lee Mackey of the University of California at Los Angeles, who is studying how Brazil is spreading its industrialized agriculture around the tropics. Land titles are often dubious, but with prices a quarter those in Brazil, “the profitability [for the Brazilians] is so high that in the short term it is worth the risk,” says Miguel Urioste of Fundación Tierra, a Bolivian NGO. Brazilians own a quarter of the country’s soy farms, and repatriate most of their profits. The largest covers 115,000 acres. “There is a progressive foreign hoarding of the best agricultural land,” he concluded in a report for the UN. Anti-Brazilian sentiment reached a peak in Bolivia in late 2011, when protests against a planned Brazilian-built road through indigenous territories forced Morales to abandon the project. 2424

Widjaja, named Indonesia’s richest man in 2011, is flamboyant, famously wearing a belt buckle that spells out his first name, Eka, in diamonds. He is also a dynastic patriarch. He has more than a dozen wives and at least forty children, several of whom have taken top jobs inside his growing corporation. APP, like its owner, has a cowboy reputation. It has been convicted of illegal logging in several countries. An American researcher writing in the Asian Times concluded in 2004 that “APP’s business model is a tactically aggressive one: it turns huge profits by quickly stripping forests bare, exploiting age-old forests and indigenous peoples, and leaving town before the environmental consequences are felt. By the time communities and governments lodge complaints and lawsuits, APP has divested itself of local interests and assets.” 2755

for most of his thirty-two-year rule, from 1967 to 1998, Suharto had the staunch support of the West as a bulwark against communism. The customary land rights of the country’s rain-forest-dwelling majority, known as adat, were recognized in Indonesian law. But they were superseded by the nationalization of the forests, and rendered defunct if they conflicted with development projects of national importance, whether logging, mining, or plantation agriculture. Land grabbers ruled in the jungle. As Suharto put it, “nomadic farming should be terminated.” 2818

With almost a fifth of the world’s population, but only a tenth of the world’s arable land and much less of the world’s water, China is short of some basic resources for growing crops. And it is growing shorter. Urbanization, industrial development, reservoirs, soil erosion, and spreading deserts have cut the amount of cultivated land in China by about 6 percent in the past decade alone. An estimated 50 million Chinese farmers have lost their land since 1990. Rural protests against domestic land grabs proliferate. Meanwhile, a growing demand for meat and dairy products, which take more land and water to produce, has been stoking up the pressure. China accounts for 30 percent of global meat consumption. The amazing thing, perhaps, is that for most foodstuffs, China still largely feeds itself. More so, in fact, than almost any other country. China does need some imports of foodstuffs. It imports a lot of sugar, for instance. And Chinese companies are grabbing land to grow more, partly to make ethanol. Complant International Sugar—which already grows sugar in Benin, Sierra Leone, and Madagascar through its Cayman Islands–based subsidiary Hua Lien—in 2011 leased Jamaica’s last three sugar estates, covering 75,000 acres, from the ailing state-owned Sugar Company of Jamaica. A Chinese sugar project in Mali will cover 60,000 acres (see chapter 25); another of similar size is planned in the Philippines. But China’s main need is for soy, which it gets mostly from Latin America, to feed its livestock. China wants to cut out the soy middlemen. It clearly does not trust the large American-owned commodity traders like Cargill and Bunge. Leading the way is Beidahuang Land Cultivation Group, a giant state-owned farming business based in the northeast of the country that grows more soy than anyone else in China. In 2011, it secured a deal with the governor of Rio Negro in Argentina to lease some 570,000 acres. It also tied up a long-term agreement with domestic Argentine land giant Credus, which controls more than 2 million acres of farms. Beidahuang said it would also build a new port to export the soy. China’s demand for soy is also taking it to Brazil. And, as I saw during my visit to the cerrado, Chongqing Grain Group has sealed a $2.4 billion deal there to set up western Bahia’s biggest soy processing plant and ship 1.5 billion tons of soy back to China every year. While China’s demands are large, they are not insatiable. The fruits of its one-child policy are already seeing its population stabilizing, and its head count could soon be falling. Yes, as the Chinese grow richer, they will demand more stuff—requiring imports of land-dependent commodities like rubber, cotton, timber, and biofuels. But the truth may be that China’s food consumption explosion has already happened. If Chinese agricultural corporations continue to take over the world, as they may, it will often be to supply other markets. Like you and me. 3262

I discovered what these ideas could mean in practice when I went to the Il Ngwesi eco-lodge. It is Maasai run, part of a collectively owned “group ranch” on a corner of Laikipia that they have managed to hold against all comers. And it is the one tourist place in this part of the world that I would thoroughly recommend. 3541

Perched on a cliff top about 6 miles northwest of Lewa Downs, the eco-lodge has been in business for more than a decade now. My Jeep ride from the grass airstrip took me slowly through a tightly packed herd of about a hundred migrating elephants, one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life. Below the lodge there was an animal watering hole visited by buffalo, lions, giraffes, gazelles, warthogs, and impala. There were solar panels on the roof, but the “rooms” were otherwise open to the air. “Watch out for leopards,” the guard joked as I settled down for the night. I didn’t sleep for hours. Over breakfast, the secretary of the Il Ngwesi group ranch, Morias Kisio, told me how the lodge came about. In the 1970s, European tour operators had set up a camel-trekking operation on the collectively owned 16,000-acre ranch, but without offering any payment. “We thought it was their right,” he said. But the Maasai elders met Ian Craig from Lewa Downs, who “told us we should be paid. So we charged the operators 50 shillings per person per night for everyone who stayed on our land.” That is worth only about 50 cents today. Not much, but it was sufficient to open a bank account, and the community used the money to pay for schooling for their children. “Then Ian showed us how we could get into business ourselves. He said we could get money to build this lodge. We designed and built it ourselves for under a million shillings. Now we can make two million shillings [about $22,000] a year from the lodge. It means we can send students to university.” There have been conservation compromises. They keep their cattle away from tourist areas now, for instance. And the management is no idyll of social harmony and equality. As geographer Ameyali Ramos Castillo, now at the United Nations University, noted in a fascinating master’s thesis on the lodge, it is run by “the traditional leadership of male elders, and the involvement of the rest of the community has been minimal, at best.” But she concluded that it is nonetheless “highly sustainable.” They have found a new, and profitable, way of living in their landscape. And exposed as nonsense the belief that the Maasai, their cattle, and wildlife are incompatible. “We still milk our cows,” Morias said with a smile, “but now, with the tourists, we can milk the elephants, too.” 3544

Today, almost two decades after WWF helped create these parks, “these communities continue to live in wretched conditions . . . as squatters on land purchased for them by charitable organisations . . . and face extreme marginalisation and discrimination,” according to a recent report by the Rights and Resources Initiative. They watch from squalid roadside camps as tourists drive by wielding $30-a-day permits to visit gorillas in land that was once theirs. A later internal history of WWF, Treading Lightly, admitted that “too often in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, WWF helped organize the expulsion of tribal groups from their land on the pretext of preserving wildlife. The result . . . was often to alienate the very people who had successfully shared the land with big game for centuries.” At the time, WWF appeared to be operating as a paramilitary force in Africa. It paid for helicopter gunships that shot down poachers in Kenya. And, in an exercise known as Operation Lock, WWF staff were involved in a Bernhard-funded scheme to hire the British mercenary David Stirling to hunt down ivory poachers and traffickers in Namibia and Mozambique. The mercenaries, who had close ties to South African defense forces, became involved in smuggling themselves. 3598

More than a billion people live in the top twenty-five biodiversity “hotspots.” Usually, the people living in those hotspots are the poorest and most vulnerable, who have been squeezed to the margins of society—to the remote places where nature survives because human infrastructure is little developed. Often too, they are indigenous people. About half of the parks and other areas protected for nature in the past forty years overlap the traditional territories of indigenous people. In Latin America, the figure is 86 percent. In the cause of conservation, many have been thrown off their land. Marcus Colchester, director of the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme, says: “Conservation has immeasurably worsened the lives of indigenous peoples through Africa.” He reckons that forest dwellers and indigenous people have altogether lost around 400,000 square miles across the continent—more than four times the area of Britain—as a result of green grabs. Kai Schmidt-Soltau, a Swiss social scientist at the International Network on Displacement and Resettlement in Tucson, Arizona, put the number of “conservation refugees” created around the world in recent decades at “upwards of 120,000.” Such calculations are controversial. They greatly anger conservation groups, who mostly flat-out deny involvement in expulsions. Schmidt-Soltau says that fourteen thousand people were expelled from thirteen parks created in Gabon in 2002. The parks are now helping the country advertise itself as a green tourist destination. But the New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and WWF, which both supported the creation of the parks, say the park boundaries were deliberately set to avoid inhabited areas. Bryan Curran at WCS said categorically in 2009: “Not a single individual has been physically removed from any of the protected areas created in central Africa over the past decade.” He accuses Schmidt-Soltau and a “small but highly productive body of researchers” of publishing and repeating lies by claiming the expulsions continue. Partly, this is a dispute about definitions. Many of those evicted from parks and other protected areas are regarded by their governments and conservationists as squatters, because whatever their traditional rights, they have no formal title to the land. That was the case with the Kore and Guji in Ethiopia’s Nechisar park. And Christine MacDonald reported in Green Inc., her inside account of working for Conservation International, that that organization actively encouraged the Liberian government to evict people living in Sapo National Park after the civil war there, because they were “squatters.” Evicted squatters would not count as refugees. And note Curran’s phrase about people not being “physically removed.” That would not include people who were persuaded with inducements to leave their land, or who left because park rules meant they could no longer hunt or harvest the fruits of the forest. Many international refugee agencies would include all these people as environmental refugees. They also include people who did not move at all, but have part of their traditional environment-based livelihoods taken from them. Thus in Gabon’s Lope National Park, WCS denies there are any conservation refugees, since “no villages existed within the park when it was created.” But equally, some two thousand Bongo pygmy people who lived outside the park lost their ancestral rights to harvest its resources when the park was created. Curran concedes that definitions about environmental refugees differ. But he says critics of conservation are still misleading—especially when reports by Schmidt-Soltau and others are littered with pejorative phrases such as “brutal eviction.” In recent years, a new generation of conservationists in WWF and elsewhere has tried to limit the damage to indigenous people, eliminating expulsions and finding ways for them to benefit directly from conservation. They say this is both ethical and more likely to deliver successful environmental results. The… 3669

The incentives from would-be hosts are considerable. Along with free land come tax holidays, promises of new roads and power lines, and freedom to export produce and profits. Such sugar-coating often angers local peasant farmers who have never enjoyed such benefits. In the South African capital, Pretoria, assisting the farmers to move is also government policy. In 2010, ministers set aside $450 million to support South African farmers outside the country’s borders in recognition of the fact that some 30 percent of South Africa’s white-owned farmland is due to be transferred to black owners by 2014. Agriculture minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told the annual congress of Agri-SA in 2009: “If we can’t find opportunities for white South African farmers in this country, we must do it elsewhere in the continent.” But she also sees the second great trek in a strategic context, pointing out that the Chinese, Brazilians, and others are moving in on African farmland. In 2011, she said: “Africa has almost 60 percent of the global arable land that is under-utilized. It is imperative that the South African government works together with the private sector and civil society to champion South African foreign policy agenda in the continent.” If there is a land grab going on, then South Africa should not be left out. 3746

Ruth Hall and Gaynor Paradza of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, paid a visit to the proposed “vacant land” in late 2011, just ahead of the arrival of the first convoy of South African farmers. “There are people living there,” Paradza told me on her return. “At least five settlements will be affected by the land transfer. In one of the villages, Malolo 2, there was something that passed for consultation, culminating in an elder symbolically spitting palm-wine on the ground, which the ministry official took as indicating community consent.” In another village, Dehese, the local chief told her he had not been consulted at all. But he feared the worst. South African farmers had been to the village, putting pegs into the ground in the school yard and around village water sources. Hall said there was no published map of the land allocated to the South Africans. “I met the ministers of land affairs and agriculture personally, but they had different stories. Nobody even knew how long the leases would be.” In March 2011, the land affairs minister, Pierre Mabiala, said that his people expected “abundant food” from the colonists. Agri-SA promised its hosts that the newcomers will first plant staples like corn. And they “will do skill transfer to the people of Congo to educate them to become successful farmers themselves.” But back home, de Jaeger has been selling prospective pioneers the idea of growing more profitable tropical fruit like avocados and bananas, and even biofuels for export to Europe. Whatever the promises to local ministers, he believes the contracts give the farmers the right to grow what they want, to take a five-year tax holiday, not to pay any rent, and to repatriate all their profits. Next up 3765

were untended. This is one of the problems when the corporate and financial worlds move in on the peasant world. If things go wrong, they can move on and make their profits elsewhere. But they often leave behind broken promises and angry and disappointed locals with a mess to clean up. Sun Biofuels has joined a growing list of companies that tried and failed to make it big from the world’s sudden enthusiasm for biofuels in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Some might have succeeded. Others always looked like buccaneering bad boys. 3941

Rupert’s first “peace park”—claimed the Procana concession took half of the land earmarked for resettling people made homeless by the park. Then local farmers said the company destroyed some of their fields during early clearing, and unnecessarily cut them off from vital sources of water along the Elefant River. Tihovene village, one of six involved, said Procana had taken most of its fields and grazing land without their consent, while land they had offered was ignored. The trio of biofuels musketeers seemed both high-handed and inept. But in any event, the money was never raised, few of the promised seven thousand jobs were ever created, only 2,000 acres were ever cleared, and they pulled out without even telling the Mozambique government, which canceled the lease when it found out. There is no trace of Procana now. The three men went back to their mining deals. 3970

But if the fuel comes from a crop, then growing the plant will absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide from the air as is eventually released by the burning. Carbon in; carbon out. A cycle is created, in which growing new plants neutralizes the emissions. The logic is impeccable, but it leaves out two things. First, there is the carbon “footprint” of growing, transporting, and processing the crop. And second, the question of what else might have happened on that land and what its carbon consequences would be. 4046

Water is now the limiting factor for agriculture on roughly a quarter of the world’s fields. Yet nobody that I could find in government in Mali is thinking seriously about water as a limit on its own development. 4476

out on the delta, the real economy is about fish and cattle and bourgou and bananas and firewood and millet. “More people will lose than win from most irrigation projects in Mali,” says Jane Madgwick, CEO of Netherlands-based Wetlands International, with whom I traveled across the delta. “These projects will decrease food security in Mali by damaging the livelihoods of those most vulnerable. What they are trying to do at the moment makes no sense because there is simply not enough water.” Mali of course needs development. It is changing and so are the wants and needs of its people. Out on the delta, schools and clinics are starting to appear. Every fishing encampment has a TV antenna. There is sporadic cell-phone coverage. I tuned into several local radio stations. 4482

Bambara millet farmers herding goats. But the fecundity of the delta remains the basis of their survival in one of the poorest countries on Earth. And the most valuable resource here on the edge of the desert has no dollar signs attached, and does not appear in anyone’s account book. It is a commonly owned but vital resource: the water of the River Niger. As 4493

only in Africa is most of the land in some form of common ownership. About four-fifths of the continent’s 6 billion acres is not formally owned by anyone other than the state. There is no legal title, but rural inhabitants regard it as theirs. As Alden Wily began one of her trenchant papers on the topic: “Whether recognized by statutory law or not, African rural communities consider themselves to be the traditional owners of not just their house plots and farms, but also the forests, pastures and other naturally collective resources which fall within their domains.” That’s the rub. For what we are talking about is the land that the World Bank calls “the world’s last great reserve of underused land.” These are the supposedly empty plains of Africa that governments want to give to land grabbers in the cause of economic development. Again as I write, Mozambique has declared 15 million acres of this “empty” land open to foreign investors on fifty-year leases at an annual rent of around $9 an acre, and forty fellow Portuguese-speaking Brazilian soy farmers were about to go over and take a look. But to equate uncultivated with unused or unowned is a bad mistake, says Alden Wily. “In fact, virtually every inch of the continent is owned under customary norms and used in accordance with custom, for shifting cultivation, grazing, hunting, wood and non-wood extraction or as spare land for expanding farming when needed.” Common lands are also where domesticated livestock and wildlife have coexisted for thousands of years. They are the conservationists’ “Pleistocene landscapes.” Africa is the last great stronghold of the commons, though the customary rights they entail often exist in parallel with, or in defiance of, formal law. European colonists never accepted the commons, though they mostly left the pastoralists to their own devices. Post-independence African states either expunged the customary rights or overrode them by nationalizing the common pastures and forests in the name of socialism. Socialism is out of favor today. So the great sell-off has begun—in the name of economic development. Parcel it all out and all will be well. Alden Wily wants neither state control nor privatization. Instead she wants a renaissance for customary land tenure, by enshrining it in national laws. That is no panacea. As we saw in Ghana, tribal chiefs can be as venal as government ministers when a foreigner comes calling with a checkbook. But without some change to vest land rights in the community, she believes that most of the commons are doomed. “Half a billion Africans will remain tenants of a state that can perfectly legally sell or lease their farms and commons from beneath their feet.” From Gambella to Mozambique, and South Sudan to Liberia, the great pastures and forests today are the only surviving places on the planet that “provide the scale of contiguous and intact estates sought by large-scale investors.” That is why they are under attack as never before. The current land rush, she says, “is a tipping point in the penetration of capital into agrarian societies.” We could be witnessing the beginning of the final enclosure of the world’s unfenced lands, and with it the “final extinction of customary land rights.” It need not happen. In the rich world, some indigenous cultures in remote regions have beaten back the tide and successfully claimed their right to hold and manage large areas of land according to their own ways—whether the Inuit of Canada, the Sami of Scandinavia, the Aborigines of Australia, or the Native Americans on their reservations. Alden Wily will, she says, “not rest until the four billion hectares of customary land are legally entrenched in the hands of their rightful owners, the world’s two billion rural poor.” 4587

“In reality, open markets do not necessarily deliver either affordability or balance to the market for food,” said Nick Tapp, the head of agribusiness at Bidwells, the London-based international property consultants. “The rapid price movements of early 2011 suggest an altogether more volatile market going forwards, as market pricing responds increasingly to the daily signals and sentiments flashed across newswires.” Hitching the food business more tightly to global financial markets will, as it did in 2008 and 2011, pump up price fluctuations and decrease food security. “Periods of shortage and related hunger are endemic to a laissez-faire approach to markets,” he added. 4662

Watson, on the other hand, sees the biggest problems as poverty, lack of development in poor rural communities, and the uneven distribution of food. After all, he points out, we produce enough food now to feed the world, but still 1 billion people go hungry. He says the agribusiness prescription could kill the patient. Half the world’s undernourished people, and three-quarters of Africa’s undernourished children, live on small farms. Watson says the best way to feed them is to help them feed themselves and their communities, by “empowering the small farmer.” Beddington wants to take away their land in order “to make agriculture more efficient.” But Watson asks: more efficient for whom? Are we most interested in the efficient use of capital or labor? In the efficient delivery of food to markets or to the poor? In healthy children or healthy bottom lines? If these different efficiencies have different requirements, then Beddington’s efficient farms may not solve the problem as he hopes. There is no doubting that much peasant farming is in a mess, and nowhere more than in Africa. Per-capita food production in Africa has only recently returned to the levels of the early 1960s—whereas it has doubled in Asia and risen by 60 percent in Latin America. 4685

investors keen to profit from Africa’s newfound reputation as the “last frontier” for agribusiness, it may not suit Africans so well. As Raj Patel of the University of California at Berkeley put it for Foreign Policy, “big agriculture tends to work most lucratively with large-scale plantations and operations to which small farmers are little more than an impediment.” There is another blueprint. It rejects Beddington’s notions of “efficiency,” Collier’s Brazilian aspiration, and Ferguson’s dreams of giantism. It holds that the idea of uprooting half a billion peasants who grow 90 percent of the continent’s food is a global capitalist version of the disastrous socialist experiments attempted by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. According to this blueprint, mixed farming systems operated by most of the world’s smallholders have at least as much productive potential as big farms with their monocultures. As Patel said, “if you’re keen to make the world’s poorest people better off, it’s smarter to invest in their farms . . . than to send them packing to the cities.” Simple measures of tons of grain per acre may suggest big is best. But small farmers bring many other things to the kitchen table. Official statistics often ignore the fact that they use every corner of their plots, planting kitchen gardens where mechanized farms have vehicle yards. They gather fruits from the hedgerows. They have chickens running in the yard. They feed animals on farm waste and apply the animals’ manure to their fields. They raise fish in their flooded paddies. Big farmers may have access to more capital. But ultimately their purpose is to generate returns for that capital—to please their investors, rather than to feed families. “There can be a green revolution in Africa,” said Gordon Conway, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, launching his Montpellier Panel report on African agriculture in 2010. “But it will be driven by smallholders—the 33 million smallholders in Africa with less than two hectares. The people from whom that continent gets 90 percent of its food. It is their productivity we have to improve.” Dig into the literature and you find that this view is widely held among many experts on world agriculture, even those working for organizations more associated with gung-ho agri-capitalism. The World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report concluded that investment in peasant farming was among the most efficient and effective ways of raising people out of poverty. Its 2009 study on “awakening Africa’s sleeping giant” is widely claimed to be a manifesto for big farming and land grabs. But even a cursory reading suggests not. The report notes, for instance, that “despite recent efforts, mainly by foreign investors, to launch large-scale agribusiness ventures in Africa, there is little evidence that the large-scale farming model is either necessary or even particularly promising for Africa.” Asia’s green revolution is often cited as a triumph for agribusiness. But a 2011 study by Diana Hunt and Michael Lipton at London’s Chatham House, Green Revolutions for sub-Saharan Africa?, says the real Asian lesson for Africa is that “employment-intensive, small-scale farming [is] both more efficient and more pro-poor.” Vietnam, a country with a booming economy and fast-rising population, has gone from running a regular food deficit to being a major food exporter by investing in smallholder farming. Big farms hollow out communities, while investment in small farms sustains and improves them, says a 2007 study by the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute. “When small farm households spend their incomes, they tend to spend them on locally produced goods and services, thereby stimulating the rural non-farm economy and creating additional jobs,” says IFPRI’s Peter Hazell. Small farms also nurture local agricultural know-how, and networks of marketing and other expertise. Such “social capital” underpins wider development, but could never emerge from… 4696



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