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Farmland as a commodity

Reena Mehta |

The age-old tussle over scarce resources is nothing new and with land increasingly becoming a scarce resource the world is witnessing an increased struggle for it. However, the pace with which urban and industrial development encroaches on farmland and the way large tracts of farmland are going into private hands has not been witnessed since the colonial times.

To many rural dwellers, land holds enormous importance as being the main livelihood asset. The economy in these rural areas draws heavily on agriculture; thus, access to land serves as a security for food and income generation to farmers.

Industrial development and population pressures of several countries have pushed food needs far beyond the capacity of their own land. The food crisis of 2008 became a triggering point for many of these countries to go for aggressive overseas land acquisition deals. To them it is an attempt to avert domestic social unrest and political instability over food price and supply. Countries who are involved in such food security-based land grabs include China, India, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia etc.

Another prominent reason for this global rush for land is the increased demand for biofuels. It is sometimes seen as a green solution to climate change. Use of biofuels has become an integral part of energy policy of many developed countries. For example, in 2010, European Union member states approved the Renewable Energy Directive.  Under this policy they are targeting consumption of biofuels equivalent to more than 40 million tonnes oil equivalent by 2020. This is expected to be realised through grabbing land in Global South.

Thus, questions about land markets have become central to development policy with profound political and economic implications. It is prioritisation of urban population and development over agriculture.

Land deals are taking place across the world from South Asia to Latin America. However, Africa is at the center of this land market development with the myth of availability of large tracts of empty land and low production costs. The host countries see these investments as an opportunity for more production in agriculture with the introduction of new technology, investment in infrastructure and creation of job opportunities with an overall impact of reduction in poverty. Thus, these deals are projected as a win-win situation for all.

Lessons from the past have taught us that consequences of large-scale corporate land deals are often adverse on local populations. Such deals brought a change in the use of land from small-scale, labour-intensive to large-scale, capital intensive. Many in these countries are facing a serious livelihood and displacement crisis, as their land is needed but their labour is not. Small farmers are forced to sell their land and are thus joining the ranks of landless workers.

However, the limited capacity of industry to absorb this newly uprooted workforce raises serious questions of their livelihood. This scenario is well depicted in the words of C. Tanner in the case of Mozambique. According to him, “the Mozambican enclosures could produce the same result as their predecessors in Europe – a dispossessed rural majority, and migration to towns. Yet, unlike Europe, this will be in a country that is not about to embark on a labour-intensive industrial revolution generating thousands of new jobs for the dispossessed peasant farmers and their families”. He adds, “Nowadays it is not only agriculture, but also many other sectors whose ‘development’, through capital investment and technical change, involves the shedding, rather than the absorption, of labour.”

Through this dispossession not only do small farmers lose rights over their small holdings or community lands but their land gets converted to large industrial estates producing for far-off markets. This also raises serious concerns about food security of the poor and the marginalised in the host countries.

The most crucial aspect however of these land acquisitions is the involvement of a diverse array of actors including governments of consumer and host countries, private investors and political elites. The involvement of such a diversity of actors in promoting, enabling and enacting such land acquisitions poses real challenges to safeguarding the rights and livelihoods of groups until now at the periphery. Also, where there are strong incentives for the state actors to ally with multinational capital for private gain, rather than work for the welfare of people, the risks of negative outcomes increase.

Different state, corporate and rural social movement groups view land transactions differently. These differences are not always trivial. Many of these are linked to competing ideological and political standpoints that have strategic implications for politics.

This unholy alliance of state and capitalist power has resulted in bringing the rural peasants in direct confrontation with them. It is observed that rural poor usually undertake covert, unorganised and unstructured forms of resistance. However, this resistance according to A.E. Schneider “may intensify and transform to a more organized and overt method to counteract the accumulation by dispossession, state simplification, and code of conduct.”  Karl Kautasky also believed that, “as in industry, any improvement in agriculture will come from the pressures of the organized workforce… capable of exerting collective bargaining pressure for the kind of improvements industrial workers are now taking for granted”.

Although organised social movements are trying to take up the cause but evidence suggests that there are competing and conflicting positions between them. While talking about two of the largest and politically most important farmers’ coalition, namely, La Via Campesina and the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP) Borras Jr. et al. says they take competing instead of complementing views and positions. IFAP is composed of commercially-oriented small, medium and rich farmers whereas La Via Campesina is an international movement of poor peasants and small farmers in the developing and industrialised worlds.

There is also a renewed debate on large versus small farms. With the inability of contemporary industrial capitalism to absorb this new landless labour force, serious concerns are raised about land and its distribution. This debate has also led to worldwide attention on to the consequences of over-exploitation of land and natural resources by industrial form of agriculture. The adverse impact of this agriculture on ecology has created worldwide concerns and thus movements to look for alternatives for sustainable use of land and its resources.

As future global security is associated with the global food and fuel security thus these land acquisitions are part of the global power struggle to control the resources and the power this brings. Rampant land grabbing undermines customary mechanisms of land governance, while increasing hardship among the majority poor. Denial of access to land can cause grievances that can escalate into conflict when associated with poverty and marginalisation.

It is widely realised today that in these times of climate change and associated serious ecological threats, food security – particularly of poorer countries and vulnerable communities among them – is badly threatened. It is equally widely realised that perhaps the most basic source of food security for these communities exists in the form of land rights of small farmers. Therefore, a consensus of public policy should emerge that land rights of small farmers and food security based on this should not be disturbed and disrupted. Public policy should not be guided by money power but instead should give the highest priority to the food security of vulnerable people in these difficult times.


The writer is a researcher on social movements and freelance contributor.