Tag Archive | land grabs

Toeing a Thin Line

When does one draw the line between foreign direct investment (FDI) in agribusiness and large-scale land acquisitions? The case of Australia is particularly perplexing to me: this is a highly developed country with a healthy economy, an educated population, a theoretically functioning justice system and strong civil society. And yet, Australia’s lands have become privy to so much foreign investment that the government last year felt compelled to launch a national investigation on large agribusiness investments…because they no longer knew how much of their land was still in the hands of Australians.

As John Cobb, the Australian Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, said in April 2011:

“While foreign investment has been vital for the development of agriculture in Australia, in the last three years we have seen a ten fold increase. There has been a marked change in the activity by foreign companies from investment in agriculture to ownership and control of supply lines.”

It is precisely this control of supply lines that will make the difference between FDI, which has helped to boost agriculture and R&D worldwide when the public funding just hasn’t been there, and land acquisitions that directly threaten food security and food sovereignty.

Frankly, after having run a model analyzing food supply to 2050, I am surprised that Australia is taking such leisure to sell off its most productive lands. It has already faced serious droughts in recent years, with the wheat crop—its largest agricultural export—suffering heavily due to rising temperatures (wheat’s optimal growth occurs below 26 Celsius.) This trend of decreased yields will continue to accelerate, and a greater shift toward barley, sugar, and fruits (its other main agricultural exports) will only get Australia so far if the aquifers become even more depleted due to increased reliance on large-scale irrigation and are not recharged at sustainable rates due to decreased rainfall.

Unfortunately, instead of incentivizing Australian politicians to limit foreign agricultural land purchases, this pressure from decreasing yields has begun to make Australians, like Prof. Robin Batterham, consider pushing this fate onto others:

”Other countries are investing in Australia … so that the produce of the land can go to their countries… As an investment, why aren’t some of our larger farms – that is the companies that own them – also investing in places where the soil is a bloody sight better than Australia’s?”

Hence why a headline like “Western Australia to release 15,200 hectares of new farm land” makes me so upset. Since when is this land “new,” undeveloped, unowned? Aside from the obvious lack of concern for any ecosystems that may have once existed on this “new” land, there is likewise a blatant disregard for farmers that were already on this land, the native peoples that have been on the land for centuries, and the children who would have inherited the land tomorrow. When does the cost of economic growth finally become high enough to make politicians question their decision-making?

Conservation vs. Development

Conservation vs. development, to me at least, always seemed to be a false dichotomy.

However, within the last 12 hours alone, I’ve seen multiple posts that argue otherwise. One was in Foreign Affairs regarding Morales’s declining regime, and another on two large concessions in Gambela, Ethiopia (Saudi and Indian); these are disparate continents and issues, yet both writers seemed to think that unless a national park or protected area has a fence and federal guards 24/7, people have the right to abuse the land. The more striking assumption, however, is that it would not be in the interests of the citizens to preserve their wildlife–as if people do not fish, hunt, drink water, breathe air, wear clothes made from plants, consume plant-derived medicine, grow food that needs pollinators, or take advance of the hundred other ecosystem services afforded them by the land they live on. Development does not have to be the crazy roller-coaster that China embarked on, with the obsessive emphasis on cheap fuel and rapid industrialization. We have already seen examples of African entrepreneurs taking advantage of abundant solar resources to provide clean electricity, and of the power of simple cellphone networks to transform personal banking and increase market access on the continent. Why should it stop there?

I don’t know that paying for ecosystem services is the ultimate answer to this dichotomy, but other market-driven incentives already exist. Ecotourism. Agroforestry. Shade-grown organic-certified coffee and tea. And if we drive ourselves to be more creative, more will arise.

On skepticism and happiness

To say that I am a skeptic is an understatement. I don’t think that murdering a figurehead like Osama bin Laden will bring an end to extremism, nor that keeping a currency artificially high will bring the best results in the long run. The eternal New Yorker in me sees skepticism as a mode of survival, but in California this seems to work against me. The happy folks out here equate skepticism to pessimism, and pessimism to downright grouchiness.

Well, happy people, you are both right and wrong. A good friend, calling himself a humanist, lives by the motto that he can’t control others’ happiness, but can at least ensure that he does things to make himself happier. While I would never deny the benefits of an Epicurean lifestyle, there’s something to be said for empathy. People everywhere are struggling–not in deciding between two different cars or girlfriends–but to survive. And there’s beauty to the struggle, always. But to ignore it because it doesn’t fit neatly into the bubble lifestyle of VC funding and 401Ks is to ignore one’s roots… and forgetting our roots is the most common mistake we make as a species. So we continue to be amazed by the harshness and anonymity of war, the nostalgia for extinct species as we keep losing more, the scale of revolutions technological and political alike.

One step forward, two steps back.

I don’t think foreign aid is the answer to others’ struggles. Charity rarely is, mostly because it’s not sustainable and lacks an accountability mechanism (though it arguably needn’t have any). I don’t think stopping FDI inflow will prevent land grabs, nor do large-scale land acquisitions have to be inherently unwise. They just often are. Things are more complex than the media, the progressives, the conservatives, and the governments portray. So why not be skeptical?