by Lode Vanoost, Former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives of Belgium and Senior Advisor to OSCE
June 1, 2012 (TSR) – Multinational corporations are buying up swathes of land in underdeveloped countries in an unchecked scramble towards new-age colonialism. So-called “land grabbing” sees western powers vying for economic control of the developing world’s resources.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently gathered with members of the corporate elite and NGOs to develop guidelines against “land grabbing”. Matters have been prepared over the last three years, leading to the present guidelines being published at the beginning of May 2012. While in principle a perfectly legitimate idea, it’s best to stay cautious.
Media have used the epithet “historic” to describe this new UN initiative. Days have long gone since the word was used to describe events that had a proven impact over time. These guidelines still have to be proven in practice. Maybe they will lead to substantial changes. My experience with history tells me otherwise.
Once the flashy press brochures are left untouched on some desk and everybody runs off after new pressing issues, then it is time to take a closer look. What exactly are we talking about? Let’s look at this so-called “land grabbing”. This is what Wikipedia has to say:
“Land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions; the buying or leasing of larger pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments and individuals. While used broadly throughout history, land grabbing as used today primarily refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the 2007-2008 world food price crisis … the target locations of most land grabs lie in the Global South, with 70% of land grabs in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Wikipedia being what it is – mostly an excuse for people (like me) too lazy to do real research – one can certainly not suspect it of having leftist tendencies. Precisely that makes their definition interesting. Let’s do some cross-checking.
It starts with a contradiction: grabbing is a fancy word for stealing, but an acquisition implies a legal (and legitimate) interaction between seller and buyer.
Then follows another contradiction. Land grabbing has been a practice “broadly throughout history” but nevertheless it refers to a very recent phenomenon – “large-scale land acquisitions following the 2007-2008 world food price crisis.”
It all takes place in the Global South, 70% of it in Sub-Saharan Africa. For some unfathomable reason, there is no land grabbing in the agricultural plains in the South of France or the midwest of the US. Also, it has to do with “food’ and ‘water”, meant to be produced for the “North” (meaning the affluent in North and South, not the poor).
This definition also tells us it’s all being done by “domestic and transnational companies, governments and individuals”. Considering that big companies in the South are mostly subsidiaries of, or financially linked to western multinationals, the real “domestic” part of it is negligible.
Governments in the “Global South” have some things in common, such as little or no democratic accountability if not outright systemic corruption, small and inadequate budgets and weak institutions. That means most of the time these are governments buying land with loans from these same transnational companies or from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Then there’s the “individuals”, we can safely replace with “extremely wealthy individuals” .
These UN guidelines are non-binding. Governments and multinationals “should” respect women’s rights to the land, “should” not “be complicit” in human rights abuses. There are no formal legal sanctions. What will that mean for Chinese companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Canadian ones in Zambia? These guidelines are a polite way of saying: “By the way, these methods that you used to get so wealthy, could you now please not use them anymore?”
I have seen the arable lands left unused East of Kinshasa, stretching for miles and miles next to the roads towards Bandundu paved anew by Chinese contractors – all personal property of the heirs of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. In his day they were indeed “used” – for exports that is, most certainly not for his own people.
Land grabbing is NOT a new phenomenon. What was colonialism other than land grabbing, where “land” stood for the whole country? Then, when popular resistance in the South (and to a lesser extent the change of public opinion in the North) became too costly, the colonial powers “granted” independence. More correctly, they had to give back what was never theirs.
We found another way. We financed armed and corrupt dictatorships from Paraguay to Indonesia to maintain the western economic stronghold over the Third World. After lavishing our thug friends over there with abundant loans, that system collapsed as well. Now we insist on democracy (and correct payments of debts on the side), knowing full well that this way these countries will not have the means to decide their own future.
Do not worry, the final “historic” solution is on the way. Le nouveau “land grabbing” est arrivé. Better and more ethical than the previous one. Even the World Bank is there to help, the very same institution that saw no problems in lending to the likes of Indonesia’s Suharto.
Since land grabbing has been going on for so long, why then is it a hot issue today? Well, the former colonial powers have a problem. They do not have the means anymore to compete on the “free market” with the new emerging powers like the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Their population is no longer willing to bear the brunt of new colonial conquest. Basically, western countries blaming China and other countries for their land grabbing are saying: “Shame on you, you are acting as we did!”
So the western powers are left with the one option where they rule supreme: the military. NATO is planning its new global strategy with Libya as the working model. Smothered in rhetoric of “human rights”, “democracy” and “responsibility to protect”, the former colonial powers are planning their new “land grabbing”.
One can never predict the future. So, it could very well be that this time these new UN guidelines will indeed benefit the starving people of the South. I remain skeptical. The NGOs which claim that these guidelines are an important first step are right, at least if they remain within the framework of the prevailing economic system. If you accept that as a given, then these guidelines are a useful tool of reference.
These NGOs are at least naive and fooling themselves or at worse complicit in saying this. As long as the profit motive is the only driving force of our economy, things will turn out as they did. Guidelines will be violated. Multinationals will brush the general interest aside. That is no more a conspiracy than the fact that all water runs to the sea, it is the nature of the beast. It is what multinationals are supposed to do. It is what they will do.
But, we do need to foresee plans for an ever-expanding population, for the food crises of the future, right? Well, people in the Third World are starving now, today, as we speak. They have been doing so for the last fifty years, if not longer. How about dealing with that problem first?
Things are not written in stone. It’s never too late to resist, but we should start by agreeing on one thing: the UN should declare the present land grabbing drive illegal and set binding rules, not guidelines. Unrealistic? Sure, but much less so than maintaining the present lemming drive towards total disaster.
Lode Vanoost is a former deputy speaker of the House of Representatives of Belgium and Senior Advisor to OSCE. Since 2003 he works as an international consultant, mainly for parliamentary institutions. He writes regularly for the Dutch -language Belgian websites www.dewereldmorgen.be and www.uitpers.be.