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Hudson Valley World View: In Race for Farmland, Locals Lose

Imagine the Town of Poughkeepsie — all 31 square miles of it. Now imagine that this entire area is acquired by foreign land investors. And now imagine that the equivalent of 3,742 Poughkeepsies has been obtained by these financiers over the last decade. This may sound far-fetched. And yet, over the last 10 years, capital-rich and land-hungry nations, along with private investors, have acquired about 116,000 square miles of farmland (roughly 30 million hectares), mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. This story begins in 2007-08, when the world was swept up in a global food crisis. Numerous Persian Gulf and East Asian countries were unable to grow sufficient food at home to meet national demand. They were also fed up with the volatilities of international commodities markets. So they decided to grow food overseas. Separately, agribusiness firms and land speculators recognized the high value of arable land in a world where growing populations were taxing natural resources. They began snapping up land as well. These overseas land acquisitions are not inherently bad. The developing world — where the majority of land has been obtained — is in dire need of agricultural investment. And most foreign investors have made tantalizing promises to local communities: improved agricultural technologies, increased employment and higher crop yields. The problem is that in most cases, these promises haven’t been kept. Investors often use their own laborers and rarely share their inputs with locals. Furthermore, about 60 percent of the land in these deals is cultivated for export. As a result, some of the world’s most impoverished and food-insecure communities can only watch as outsiders swoop in, lay claim to precious arable land, farm it, and then whisk away the output. Worse, some speculators, instead of farming land, simply sit on it as its value rises. This is all facilitated by weak land tenure. Investors easily seize territory often used — though not formally owned — by indigenous communities. And the latter get little support from their governments, which are often corrupt, undemocratic and happy to accommodate deep-pocketed investors. Host governments dangle generous incentives to prospective investors, including, in volatile Pakistan’s case, a private security force to protect land assets. The consequences are deeply troubling. Researchers have documented cases of displacement, as well as environmental damage. In some cases, violence has broken out when local communities offer resistance — not a surprise, given that these deals occur in some of the world’s most conflict-riven nations, such as Ethiopia and Sudan. Unrest has so far been localized, though in one country — Madagascar — opposition to a land deal galvanized the masses and helped trigger their government’s ouster. Asking foreign financiers to end their predatory and exploitative investment practices would be a fool’s errand. They are simply too powerful to be swayed (though a recently ratified U.N. “code of conduct” governing more responsible investment can’t hurt). Instead, conditions should be put in place that protect against such practices. Host governments should establish and enforce laws governing foreign land investment, and provide legal assistance and protection to vulnerable communities. NGOs should help people obtain land titles. And influential donors — such as the World Bank, whose private lending arm finances many of these deals — should condition their aid on beneficial outcomes. Examples include hiring specific numbers of local laborers and selling specific percentages of yields in local markets. Global trend lines suggest this problem isn’t going away. Populations continue to grow, land and food supplies continue to shrink and commodities markets remain volatile. The race for the world’s farmland has no finish line in sight. We need to ensure its fairness, and help protect its spectators. Originally posted in the Poughkeepsie Journal