Posted by: jennsvetlik | March 7, 2013

Free Trade Accelerates Land Grabs

By Jennifer Svetlik, Program Associate, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Land as gift is a prominent theme in the biblical narrative. In Genesis, the earth’s first inhabitants are charged with tending the land, a home offered to them by God. Land is promised to Abraham and his descendants as a covenantal inheritance (c.f. Gen 12), not a commodity. The Israelites are instructed not to sell the land permanently, because it is God’s; humans are the land’s tenants (c.f. Lev 25).

Uganda-Remembering Home

According to Oxfam’s Grow Campaign, at least 22,500 people have lost their land to make way for a timber company in Uganda.  
CC Image courtesy of Oxfam International on Flickr and made available under an Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives 2.0 license.

“Land grabs,” which have received increasing media attention in recent years, should be of particular concern to people of faith. Land grabs are “large-scale purchases or leases of agricultural or forested land on terms that violate the rights of the people who live on or near that land,” as defined in Land Grabs and Fragile Food Systems: The Role of Globalization, a report released by The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

The report released this month, authored by Sophia Murphy of the IATP, focuses on how the trade system accelerates land grabs.

Murphy examines the relationship of globalization, specifically “the deregulation of trade and foreign investment laws, which has greatly eased cross-border capital flows; relaxed the limits on foreign land ownership; and opened markets to agricultural imports,” to land grabs. She contends that globalization has driven land grabs by making land an appealing asset for global investors and increasing the risk that international markets might not provide food for importing countries.

Murphy argues that “the globalization of food production, distribution, and finance contributed significantly to the food price crisis of 2007-08.” The crisis revealed that international trade cannot guarantee food security. Less predictable agricultural production due to destabilized weather patterns caused by climate change has only intensified this loss of confidence in the global food system. Murphy notes that in 2012 the U.S. “lost 40 percent of a record large number of acres planted with corn to drought.”

As a result, there is a sense of both scarcity and fragility within the global food system. This has driven food-importing countries without arable land, such as Saudi Arabia, to grab land in African countries. Local communities whose land is leased or purchased are often threatened in the process.

Murphy argues that investment in agriculture is crucial, but that without examining “what kind of investment, in what kind of agriculture, and in whose interests… the investment does more harm than good.” IATP suggests four related policy changes to the international food system:

  • reformed trade rules that ensure export restrictions in times of crisis contain transparency and predictability requirements;
  • publicly-managed grain reserves to diminish the effects of supply shocks;
  • funding for the poorest food importers triggered automatically when international market prices sharply increase;
  • strong national and international laws to govern investment in land, respecting the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure.

It’s time to change the rules that make land grabs possible. To learn more, read the report.

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