Dimensions of global land grabbing

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security27 Jun 2011Jojanneke Spoor

Jun Borras is Associate Professor in Rural Development, Environment and Population at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS). At the 2011 Fellows Meeting of the Transnational Institute, Borras talked about land grabbing. He has spent the last few years researching the character and dynamics of the current global land grab. ‘Up to now our scientific knowledge is thin and uneven, insufficient to inform our advocacy and political actions.’

The first batch of scientific studies on land grabbing emerged in April at the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing, sponsored by the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI), a coalition of academic research institutions. Borras relates some of the findings.

What is the main challenge in dealing with land grabbing?

Radical forces opposing the land grab need to be strengthened. There is a discrepancy between ordinary citizens who have been ignored by their national governments on the one hand and social movements on the other. Most villagers think it’s great when they see investors, losing sight of the more strategic, agrarian and environmental dimensions of the land deals. This clashes with the views of civil society and social movements. How to close this gap is the challenge that should be confronted by engaged researchers and activists in the future.

A representative of the Dutch Ministry of Defense recently came to your office. Why?

They asked for a briefing. They are studying unconventional security factors and risks and some of the most important unconventional security issues are food crisis and land grabbing. They want to know if the Chinese moving into Africa or even Eastern Europe or the former soviet union, forms a security issue.

We hadn’t thought about it yet, so I asked their opinion. But they weren’t being very explicit. It’s clear there is some uneasiness. When the Libyans obtain physical access to Mali, that’s physical land, that is a piece of territory. Planeloads of Chinese are sent to DRC as permanent migrants. These movements are being watched closely.

We haven’t done any research on the link between land grabbing and national security. I thought it was fascinating, but figured it was an isolated inquiry. I have thought of many different spins on land grabbing: ecological, environmental etc. but I had never thought of a security spin. Then we heard that the South African chief of intelligence went to a think-tank in Cape Town asking the same question. And then again, it was mentioned during this meeting.

What are the different ways of defining land grabbing?

You can talk about transnational land grabs or you can include domestic ones. That makes a huge difference. The massive expansion into the Brazilian Amazon frontier is based on Brazilian capital. Massive land grabbing in Russia is done by the Russians. When you talk about the eleven million forests cleared in Indonesia in the past five years, that is done with Indonesian capital. How do you make sense of that? That isn’t your normal North-South, US imperialism narrative.

Would it be possible for corporations or nations to ‘grab’ land, without harming the environment or the socio-economic position of the people who live there?

{Laughs} I don’t want to answer that question. That’s a tricky one. A slippery slope to accepting the inevitability theory put forward by mainstream institutions. They figure we should just create win-win scenarios, because whatever we do, it is here, it is happening. My argument is that we can stop it. It is not inevitable. The assumption is that the problem is in production. That the growing population – the Chinese needing more cooking oil – is screwing the system. The truth is, we can easily feed the world. The problem is that the whole agro-food system is rotten.