Land grabbing through a food security lens

Climate & Natural resources18 Feb 2013Gloria Pracucci

Land grab is rarely challenged through a food security and food sovereignty perspective in research and policy elaboration, in spite of its multifarious impact on both of such key dimensions of human livelihood. 

Out of the kaleidoscope of different angles through which land grab can be analysed, the one elevating food security – and food sovereignty – as a crucial concern is amongst the most engaging and the less inquired, especially in its intertwining with policy elaboration. The urgency of such an issue emerges out of the bundle of competing uses over land and freshwater, which already entail tensions, in both high and low-potential areas at utterly diverse latitudes. Farming, industrial, commercial and financial activities thus interact with the growing interest in land, expressed by an array of actors, ranging from European and Northern American public and private actors (when not an hybrid of both), to players from countries of the Global South.

A certain discourse, originated within activism and echoed by international media, puts food security of investing countries as the main driver, and jointly objective, of land grab. Not untrue, but strongly partial in accounting for interests in land which are at stake and include biofuel extraction, flexicrops commercialisation, financial speculation, portfolio diversification: inner workings of the commodification and financialisation trends which are expanding to land, water, and foodstuffs themselves. On the contrary, land grab is rarely challenged through a food security and food sovereignty perspective in research and policy elaboration, in spite of its multifarious impact on both of such key dimensions of human livelihood.

The first thread to select out of this intricate fabric is the one of the narratives around marginal, unused and underutilised land, thus bound to increased yielding and productivity when leased out or sold to new investors. Nonetheless, land which is labelled so is rarely vacant, but frequently cultivated or used as grazing and pasture area by local farmers, and an opportunity for fishery pool where watercourses are concerned. Users who thus access to food security and food sovereignty are, however, often not photographed by national, regional and local land property cadastres: the discrepancy between formal and/or registered land (and water) rights and informal/unregistered, not necessarily customary, access leave relevant stakeholders, as they would be called in a deal-making process, and otherwise vulnerable individuals and households completely out of both the decision preceding and the contract resulting of the contract.

A second diffused representation of large-scale land acquisitions envisage so-called “win-win opportunities”, namely employment opportunities and increased wages, but also improved (local) food production: in other words, a sharply reduced vulnerability to climate, economic, financial and personal shocks. Few element, however, are sufficient to demistify such optimist – ingenuous? – attitude towards the degree of participation, inclusiveness, legitimacy and, last but not least, legality of decision-making process. Power asymmetries, complexities in designing and implementing relocation and/or compensation schemes and the dynamics of corruption, far from being eradicated in contexts where land deals are signed, expose the weakest to further vulnerability, and food insecurity when local self-production can no longer be carried out.

A third type of narrative, implicitly entrenched in land grab practices, is still struggling to come up and aggregate a significant portion of both academia’s and policy’s attention and energies. The wave of land acquisitions endorses and implies an agricultural and productive model, if not paradigm, which focuses on large-scale holding, highly mechanised techniques, biofuel extraction, a shift from holders-producers to agricultural wage workers, which is not necessarily more effective in reducing food insecurity and livelihood vulnerability – besides being the product of a historical process which took place in Western Europe and Northern America, thus not the only viable option to secure food security and, especially, food sovereignty. And what may be the implications of a predominantly export-oriented food production in countries of the Global South?

A food security and food sovereignty-oriented debate on land grab needs to hold as central such interrogatives and complexities, in primis in interpreting and implementing policy instruments, such as the Voluntary Guidelines on land tenure1, which already exist and can provide for foundations which to build upon.