by Nick Mutch
One of the words that’s been thrown around ad nauseum for the past century is the word Imperialism. An expression notoriously hard to define, but one that is nevertheless usually taken to mean something along the lines of a major, industrialised, usually Western power (the key culprit usually being the United States, although France, Britain, Japan and Russia have been equally guilty) preying on a poorer, less developed nation for its wealth, natural resources or cheap labour. They usually do this through direct military intervention or using superior economic muscle to bully less powerful nations.
Recently it has been the US invasion of Iraq that has achieved the largest outcry among the press for being ‘the new imperialism,’ with the finger squarely pointed at America’s obsessive desire to control Middle Eastern oil resources. We should be mindful that this conflict is making the headlines, it actually conceals another form of imperialism that is happening around the world right now, one which barely gets a mention in the mainstream media (as stories that do not involve criminals, blood or sex scandals often do not). It is the highly controversial activity known as ‘land grabbing’.
Put simply, land grabbing is the buying up of huge plots of undeveloped or semi-developed land by governments or corporations usually for purposes of cheap food production, and of course, profit. This is a murky issue, clouded by rhetoric from both sides, what is seen by some to be sinister capitalist imperialism is seen by others as merely an efficient and benevolent use of land that is not being put to proper use. Seen under the Western notions of private property, simple transactions of land seem quite harmless, and a sign of healthy economic activity, but the flipside to this is that much of the land being bought by large Western corporations is land that’s been used by indigenous populations for their own food production for hundreds of years, threatening them with not only hunger, but displacement from their homelands as well.
A little recent history is first necessary. It was not nearly as noticeable in Aotearoa New Zealand, although there were grumblings about small increases in grocery prices, but 2007-2008 saw a major crisis in the price of common foodstuffs around the world. Wheat, for instance, nearly doubled in price between February and December 2007, and in US, the Consumer Price Index saw the largest one year jump in nearly 20 years. In response to this, many governments and corporations begun turning to cheap land purchased from poor countries such as Sudan or Ethiopia, in order to grow food for their own countries. An Observer investigation noted that over the last few years, nearly 50 million hectares has been bought or leased in private deals. To put that in perspective, that is more than twice the size of New Zealand, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
In Ethiopia for example, nearly 3 million hectares of land has been sold, mostly to Saudi Arabia. As one of the world’s poorest nations, it can be easily understood why its government would be willing to sell land, but with over 10 million Ethiopians suffering from poverty and hunger, it must seem like a mean spirited joke. It is not difficult in a case like this to decide what shouldn’t be done. More difficult is to decide what should be done. One of the key arguments for this kind of agricultural investment, as supporters would refer to it as, is that with modern farming techniques yields on current farms can be improved by 3-4 times. In a world that’s projected to have a population of 9.1 billion by 2050, these advancements could prove invaluable. The caveat though of course is a significant one. The arguments against this kind of development is as simple as asking if we want the future of the planet’s food supply entrusted to a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy).
The World Bank recently held a conference on this exact issue, giving rather vague sounding guidelines about ‘respecting the environment’ and ‘honouring the rights of existing landowners.’ Vague guidelines, with no real enforcement procedures do not exactly compel people to follow them, especially when high levels of profit are involved. While the issues themselves cannot be seriously simplified, there is only one solution. The individuals and communities whose land is being bought and sold, often without their consent, need a VOICE.
It is hard for some like me who can wax lyrical about relationship dramas, unfinished assignments and weekend parties on blogs and Facebook and Twitter updates, to believe that there are people who have little or no access to the technology to spread any kind of information. But this is often the case and is demonstrated clearly when you do a google search for ‘landgrab’, and find just a few passing references or short articles in reputable news sites, and the odd anti-capitalist rant. What is harder to find is any kind of truly democratic representation for people whose living spaces and livelihoods may be vanishing before their eyes. We take it for granted, whilst millions of people who desperately need to tell their story are being marginalized. In the words of Harlan Ellison (American writer), they want to scream, but have no mouth to do so.
I will therefore use the opportunity I have, to put on a tinfoil hat*for a few minutes, and say that ‘land grabbing’ is the face of the new imperialism that threatens prosperity today. The new imperialists are not afraid of word of their activities spreading, because they trust that we will be too distracted to care about it beyond a few minutes of moral outrage. We are bombarded with such an overwhelming amount of facts and figures about war, climate change dictatorships and face questions about bioethics, ecology and democracy, that an obscure debate over property in countries far away seems to pale in comparison. Yet we can’t use this as an excuse to bury our heads in the sand. We shouldn’t avoid this, or all the other issues we will have to face in the future. Put simply, we can’t.
* The concept of wearing a tin foil hat for protection is associated with conspiracy theorists.