Rich, poor and precious land

Last Tuesday, after months of violent demonstrations, the president of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana, was overthrown when the island nation’s army threw its weight behind the young leader of the opposition, Andry Rajoelina. The new president moved immediately to cancel a deal with South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics for the 99-year lease of one million hectares of land for crop cultivation. «The land of Madagascar is not for sale nor for rent,» the 34-year-old president declared, closing an issue that had provoked an outpouring of rage among the Indian Ocean island’s 20 million people. Most of the world, beset by the consequences of the global economic crisis, took little notice. But the developments in Madagascar will have caused serious headaches wherever rich countries are thinking of exploiting large tracts of land in other countries for their own benefit. In the past year, several countries that have a cash surplus but a shortage of arable land and water have been looking for ways to guarantee their food supply. The chief reason has been 2008’s sudden rise in the price of staple foods, which, though 50 percent off their peak, remain about 28 percent higher than in 2006. Worse, however, is the fact that the tight supply of food prompted many exporting nations, such as India, Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam and Argentina, to curb exports so as to safeguard their own supplies. Countries that depend on imports began to worry that they might face social and political unrest if they could not find food on the open market. Saudi Arabia, which subsidizes the price of rice for its people, started looking into the possibility of cultivating land in Sudan, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere. A few weeks ago, the Financial Times reported that the first rice grown abroad by Saudi Arabian investors was presented to King Abdullah. The rice was grown in Ethiopia, which is experiencing serious food shortages of its own, with 11 million of its 80 million inhabitants being directly dependent on food aid from the United Nations. Saudi investors, subsidized by their government, have concluded a similar deal with Sudan – another one of 32 countries that need direct food aid from abroad. The United Arab Emirates is examining the possibility of cultivating land in Kazakhstan and Sudan; Libya is thinking of doing the same in Ukraine; China is exploring possibilities in southeast Asia and Africa. The idea makes sense: If countries that have money but little arable land cooperate with those that have land but are short of cash, both sides stand to gain. But already we can see the danger of rich countries making deals at the expense of the population of poorer ones. Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, used to be a strong supporter of such foreign investment in food cultivation, but he is becoming concerned. ‘The risk is of creating a neo-colonial pact for the provision of non-value-added raw materials in the producing countries and unacceptable work conditions for agricultural workers,’ Diouf said last August. The nightmare scenario is that rich countries will exploit the land at the expense of the native populations, which are usually closely tied to the land both emotionally and practically through subsistence farming. Tensions will therefore be high. Also, such farming is likely to focus on maximum production with minimal environmental safeguards. Furthermore, if large amounts of foodstuffs are taken off the free market through such bilateral deals, then supplies for the rest of the world will be even tighter, leading to even stiffer price hikes, at a time when 963 million people are already malnourished.According to the FAO, the increasing global population and socio-economic development demand a doubling of food production by 2050. For food prices to remain reasonably stable, this entails a 50 percent increase in irrigation and an additional 100-200 million hectares of arable land. (To appreciate these figures: In Greece, some 1.1 million hectares are under permanent cultivation.) Arable land, like water, is fast becoming a strategic asset. Every nation will have to calculate the value of its land anew and give it the protection that it deserves, showing it respect as the ultimate renewable source of wealth, power and sustenance. In the extensive redistribution of wealth being carried out across the globe these days, the value of land and its potential must be part of any new dispensation.

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