The new bad guys

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security27 Jun 2011Jojanneke Spoor

The land is clear, empty. Pictures appear on the screen as Jun Borras talks and they show nothing – just barren land. Borras is talking about global land grabs at the TNI Fellows Meeting (3-4 June). He talks about the new bad guys, the big corporations buying up land in Africa to produce biofuels and food, or to excavate minerals. Yao Graham calls it the new scramble for Africa.

Here’s one of the battlegrounds: 30,000 hectares of land in southern Mozambique – empty land, or so it seems. Government made a deal with the Procana investment group for industrial mono-cropping of sugarcane to produce ethanol for export. It was going to be a positive sum game. There were no people there, so development would not undermine local food security.

That’s the premise of those advocating large-scale land investments. They state that they can solve the global problems of food and energy by developing fallow and abundant land. But, looking closer, it’s clear that that land doesn’t exist. In Mozambique it appeared that there were people living in the area – somehow overlooked; subsistence farmers – a pastoralist community.

In the end, the development was cancelled, but it is still unclear what will happen to the area. One of the main problems of dealing with land grabbing is that the affected communities are not involved in decision making. What could be even more disturbing, is that activists and environmental protest groups often follow this pattern and petition their complaints without consulting the people on the ground.

They focus their attention on the new bad guys, overlooking the fact that these are often national governments, or that more often than not, local people welcome the developments. They could benefit from some sort of short-term revenue and expect an increase in jobs and opportunities.

Instead of dealing with these realities, social movements tumble over each other arguing. Farmers’ movements, environmental groups, social rights committees – they all have something different to say. And while they argue, land grabbing continues. Jun Borras doesn’t want to talk about the possible positive impact of large scale agrarian developments, but does say that any initiative to confront land grabbing should put the rural poor at the forefront.

That would also mean respecting their opinion, even if it doesn’t concur with your own.