The alarming spread of land grabbing, snatching from the poor

Land grabbing, the name given to large-scale land acquisitions practiced by companies, governements and individuals in developing countries, deprives local and mostly poor people of their homes and their access to natural resources they normally use, while there is little accountability and no global regime or standards controlling it at all, says Alexios Antypas, an associate professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy of Central European University in Budapest in this interview with freelance journalist Gabriella Horn.

Land grabbing, the name given to large-scale land acquisitions practiced by companies, governements and individuals in developing countries, deprives local and mostly poor people of their homes and their access to natural resources they normally use, while there is little accountability and no global regime or standards controlling it at all, says Alexios Antypas, an associate professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy of Central European University in Budapest in this interview with freelance journalist Gabriella Horn.


Between 30 and 60 million hectars of land –from the territories of poorer, less developed countries- are estimated to have been bought up or leased by various richer countries, corporations and investment funds from all over the world. The urban population is rapidly growing with immense food needs. Food prices are soaring and  land –indispensable for growing crops for humans, for animals and to produce biofuels – is becoming a pricy asset just like the Earth’s other –rapidly shrinking– natural recources.

Alexios Antypas Alexios Antypas
An immediate attitude and lifestyle change is needed for mankind to survive. We need to consume less, we must reduce the use of cars, and a truly sustainable economic system needs to be elaborated instead of temporary and surface solutions.

(This is the English version of an interview published on a Hungarian investigative journalism website,

Since when has land grab been an isssue?
It has been going on for over ten years but very slowly. After 2000 it accelerated  because of the global food security crisis which really put it on the agenda. It is now happening all over the place, even within countries, like India for example. It is not one problem it is a multiplicity of problems. There are deeper, foundational issues, one of them is food security.

It is difficult to say what are the causes of land grabbing and what are the symptoms, because some problems are a consequence in one place and a cause in another. Big Asian economies with enormous populations, are becoming increasingly wealthy and are putting a stronger and stronger demand on all natural resources. The majority of the world’s cement, sand and other minerals is now going to China, which has a population of  2-3 billion people with more and more money. The same is true for India but to a lesser extent… India has the biggest middle class in the world. Food security is an issue for them.
Since the last year or so the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. By the middle of this century around 70% of the world’s population is likely to be living in cities, largely in megacities in China, India, Mexico, Bangladesh and other developing countries. This enormous population is not growing their own food anymore, and because they are getting wealthier they are demonding things like more meat, that means more land demand  and more grain  needed to feed the animals.
In 2008 grain prices soared, and since then countries like China and India are trying to guarantee land where grain can be grown. They were worried about not being able to import food, because during the food crisis countries like the Ukraine put export bans on to protect their own grain supply…so big importing countries like China ( which now imports a lot of its rice,) saw that the world’s food system is potentially unstable so they want to lock in a supply for their growing, urbanized, food import dependent population.
Which countries are affected mostly by land grabbing?
Africa is very vulnerable to this kind of exploitation because it has a lot of land, people are very poor and disempowered and their governments are hungry for money. This is a perfect situation for a big investor who will put down a lot of money to get 10-20,000 hectars of land on a 99 year lease, basically without restrictions. And if there are people who happen to be living there they will simply  be moved out, resettled.
What are the main problems with land grabbing?
Human rights issues are one of the biggest ones: it takes out of farming, it denies access for locals to other natural resources on that land, like wildlife, water, wood  they would be using. It deprives people of their homes and they get few or no benefits from this. And there is little accountability, in fact there is no global regime or standards controlling this at all.
You have a PhD student (a doctoral student) from Ghana, is he examining land grabs as well?
Ghana is a very densely populated country, and the population is rapidly rising, so it has a shrinking natural resource base. There are some companies (some of them Europe based) leasing land there to produce crops for biofuels. My student is in Northern Ghana, focusing on bio fuels, examinig what the impacts of these contracts are on local communities. In this case the problem is not that these companies sign dodgy contracts, but that the impacts on local people are very mixed. Ghana is a “clean” copuntry, not a very corrupt country, it’s a good place to do business. Athough the big natural resource corporations, like the oil and mining companies are all in a business that usually has a very negative effect on local people. When it comes to leasing land for biofuels there is a lot of greenwash going on.  European companies like to advertise how very “green” they are: investing in underdeveloped countries like Ghana, producing revenue there and all for the benefit of producing cleaner fuels. The truth is more complicated.
Does land grabbing happen within countries, by local corporations,  too?
It happens  a lot, especially in Asia. For land ganbbing the target countries are not just in Africa, but also in Latin America, Asia.
What could a solution be to stop land grabbing?
This phenomenon is a social consequence of the demographic and environmental crisis that we have known about for decades, of the growing urban population and a resulting shrinkage of natural resource base as fertile soils, minerals and other resources become more scarce. Nobody thought about land grabbing as a major issue until it became a problem, although the general predictions made in 1970's concerning increasing resource scarcity were  pretty much on track.  And of course it all comes down onto the most vulerable and poorest people, beacuse  it is their land which can be appropriated. Those with money (local entrepreneurs or corporations backed by governments like China and India) are going to target –internally and externally – those places where they can get large tracts of land under their control at the least cost.
The Transnational Institute’s survey was stressing that many European organizations( companies, pension funds,etc) are taking a very active part in land grabbing… It referred to a UK based pension fund for example which owned significant rain forests…
Indeed. The food security issue is just one. Another one is energy: natural resources – including soil- are going to become more and more valuable so it makes sense to invest in these. It is diffcult to say what the right response to these trends would be: if you are not addressing deeper causes, only the symptoms, then the symptoms will occur elsewhere. Biofuels is a perfect example for this. It is meant to help solve the problem of unsustainable and climate changing energy practices, infrastructure and technology, and it just creates another problem. In order to avoid major lifestyle changes we are playing with surface level issues, creating more problems in other areas. It is not a sustainable environmental policy if it creates further social and environmental problems. And we cannot really produce enough renewables at the right price: increasing energy efficiency and reducing consumption should be in focus. What we need to figure out is how to get automobiles off the road in the first place and how to make people’s lives livable without cars. I am not meaning going back to the Stone Age…but it raises some very fundamental questions about transportation infrastructure, about where subsidies go. You could get rid of 50% or more of all cars by creating  neighbourhood cooperatives for the use of automobiles: it is a coordination issue, you need to know when you need the car. Car sharing is becoming popular in many parts of the world now.
In North America and Europe, especially in Switzerland and Germany and Canada. This is an idea that will spread because it helps solve the problem of increasing fuel and other maintenance costs for individuals who would still like to retain the freedom of rapid personal transportation. Switzerland and the Nordic countries are trying to gradually eliminate cars from large parts of their urban areas.
However, I believe the biggest problem is –especially at the governmental level and in the international community– is not just that we are only paying lip service to sustainability, but we are deliberatly blinding ourselves to the fact that resources are limited and we are now running to get into the resource limits: water, energy and food. All of this behaviour, like trying to grab things like secure energy sources and secure food sources (and water is being exported and imported as well), isn’t going to provide a long-term solution.
These are like band aids, very temporary and producing a lot of problems and injustices in the meantime. We have not fundamentally accepted the fact that the global economy cannot grow based upon consumption forever, we cannot keep consuming more resources because they are simply not there. Economists themselves have not, as a community, accepted the fact that there are ecological thresholds beyond which certain human economic activities cannot be supported.  They assume that if one resource runs out, human ingenuity will simply find another one.  How this fabulous idea pertains to clean water and fertile soils eludes me, much less how it pertains to complex systems like the climate system.
Designing a circular economy in which we do not deplete more resources than we consume is not a part of the political agenda at the moment, although necessity will certainly shape our behavior and our ideas in the near future.  Our economic plans are currently out of sync with what the planet can produce. With the financial crisis, the economic crisis, the policy establishment has only been able to resort to the same forumla that is producing our resource crunch in the first place:  consumption based growth.  China is acting like it can only grow the same way as it has been, but it cannot. On one hand everyone is saying this (consumption, the use of resources,etc.) really cannot go on like this, we are going to completely mess up the climate system on the planet and run up against many other ecological and resource constraints  But on the other hand, there are no serioius efforts to move us onto a more sustainable economic footing, supported by appropriate investment, development, social and other policies. The basic economic product comes from the planet, from materials. The tremendous growth we have had through financial instruments in the US and Europe and elsewhere was based upon money moving money, and it did not work. Like it or not, whatever else we may be, we are still just one species living on a relatively small planet with finite resources.  The economy is not some magical system that exists outside of this reality.  When we, as a species, become fully conscious of this–when we come out of our collective denial –we will be faced with a very difficult challenge of rebuilding our economic system to fit reality.  Let's hope we will then be ingenious enough to adapt quickly.

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