The ‘grabbing’ of land by foreign investors from indigenous populations across the globe has overtones of colonial exploitation
“We want the world to hear that government brought the Anuak people here to die. They brought us no food, they gave away our land to the foreigners so we can’t even move back. On all sides the land is given away, so we will die here in one place.”
An Anuak elder in from Human Rights Watch Report “Waiting Here For Death”
Since 2010, government officials have forced thousands of people in Ethiopia’s Western Gambella region off their land. Beneath the rhetoric of ‘societal and cultural development’ and ‘villagisation’ programmes, lay the grim reality of forced resettlement and hardship. The population, which is made up predominantly of Anuak and Nuer tribes, have lived on the land for centuries as pastoralists and cultivatists. Yet despite their cultural ties to the land, government and military officials have been implicated in intimidation, arbitrary arrests and violence against local populations. The Ethiopian government plans to relocate more than 1.5 million people by 2013, and throughout the developing world, the interests of powerful multinational corporations have displaced countless from their land. Since 2002, 203 million acres of farmland have been ‘grabbed’.
Under the rubric of progress and development, people have found themselves relocated to areas without adequate access to water, education and healthcare. The practice has pushed vulnerable populations into further poverty and threatened local cultures and ways of life. During the last decade, and the last four years in particular, ‘Land Grabs’ have become a common term to describe the actions of biofuel producers and international land investors, who have usurped the rights of existing landowners in anticipation of declining natural food and energy resources in the ‘developed’ world. This corporatism-induced resettlement of indigenous populations is neither a recent phenomenon nor is it only prevalent in sub Saharan Africa, but is also a deepening crisis in other parts of the ‘developing’ world such as Cambodia and Latin America.
Despite the rhetoric of development and progress, most of the produce on land which has been grabbed will be exported out of the countries through government deals with private equity funds. In a neoliberal global market of perpetual consumerism and competition, multinational corporations and private investors wish to stay one step ahead of production, turning to the sizeable indigenous areas of the planet as a new front for global profiteering. Vast swathes of land are being purchased cheaply before world food and commodity prices are expected to increase. Speculative crops are chosen to boost corporate portfolios. Put simply, agriculture is set to be the ‘golden goose’ of big business in the not so distant future.
The pursuit of profit by these corporations in some of the already poorest regions in the world raises many questions and has sparked complex debate. Many of these arguments centre around key themes: discourses of economic benefit and ‘progress’; the land rights of indigenous populations against the needs of the ‘First World’; and the ethics and accountability of powerful corporations. Indeed, with many developing countries attempting to repay external debts, one must question whether the integration of poor societies into a global market economy controlled largely by industrialised nations, is a veiled form of hegemony and colonialism?
The debate over land usage
A topic that has sparked much controversy is the usage of land by local African communities prior to foreign land acquisition, and how this has played a role in development planning. Powerful corporations such as Altima have argued that local people are neglecting their land and its full potential. Such ‘neglect’ is seen as justification for foreign intervention, as a way of both boosting productivity and introducing technological advances in agriculture. These ideas are often supported by government officials involved in the deals themselves, with state security forces utilised to enforce this vision.
However, as Oxfam has noted, the argument of unused land is a myth perpetuated by these companies as a moral justification for the forced resettlement of indigenous people. The fact that land grabs are now taking place in some of the most deprived places in the world has outraged many human rights groups and NGO’s, who question the role of powerful international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF in regulating the situation. Indeed such actions have far murkier intentions; in a recent article a former Wall Street Trader spoke of how he had managed to broker a deal for 1 million acres of land and a possible million more in war-torn South Sudan. He flaunted his culpability and openly boasted about establishing industrial farms and exporting agricultural products by ruthlessly exploiting an unstable situation, ‘like a mafia head’. Exploiting vulnerability for profit on such a large scale is a disturbing prospect, especially as the trader is now one of the biggest private landowners in Africa.
Corporate responsibility and ethics
International investments can play a key role in development and poverty reduction, when infrastructure and services are implemented with the consent and planning of local populations themselves. Instead, the main problem is that many of the recent investments are prime examples of unregulated neoliberalism. The mantra of profit over people has not only violated the rights of local populations, but these vulnerable populations have also not been adequately compensated. Indigenous communities have historically suffered from marginalisation and institutional disenfranchisement; in the face of corporate behemoths, many are unable to access legal counsel and are exploited by bureaucratic loopholes that renounce their right to land. Many human rights activists argue that transparency in these deals is crucial for raising awareness of such widespread exploitation at different levels, and in defending the rights of indigenous people to informed consent – something which is frequently flouted.
It is also important to consider that the rhetoric of certain companies can reveal implicit assumptions and prejudices that are rife in their explanations and actions. Despite injustice and anger that compelled 21 complaints to Oxfam, a quote from the World Bank-affiliated IFC in response justified their intervention in ‘imperfect governance environments’. The assumption here, in simple terms, is that the local African communities cannot be trusted with their own land which is increasing in value. That this situation requires remedial Western action has overtones of colonialism that are not easily ignored. It is no irony in the liberal dream that the world’s poorest people are sitting on what is set to become the richest land; a dream from which the natives themselves are excluded. By arguing that the land of the local communities is ‘uninhabited’ or ‘unused’ is a way of effectively erasing the claim of people from their own land, and by implying they are rootless, can be legitimately transferred elsewhere.
This allows for a subtle imposition of a more dominant culture, forced entry into a global market for ‘development’, and ultimately the loss of land to forces of marketisation and corporatism. Discourses on development converge with colonial tropes, depicting Africa as an innocent child, a ‘helpless continent’– the Africa of AIDS, genocide, the people who live closer to nature, where misfortune is rife and politics is corrupt. This continuous imagery feeds into perceptions of the ‘whiteman’s burden’, where foreign intervention is conducted with an air of superiority and where Africa’s perpetual debt perpetuates a state of dependency and loss of political control.
Can the insatiable consumerism of the ‘First World’, and ever-greater incorporation into a global market count as progress and development when it was precisely these mechanisms which have caused ecological degradation and food scarcity in the first instance? Should capitalist ventures and big businesses continue to erase the pastoralist way of life, and push large-scale industrial production as a solution to problems of resource sustainability? Of course it would seem these are paradoxical ideas. Ultimately you can dress up ‘land grabs’ with development rhetoric and an air of respectability, but currently, in Ethiopia as elsewhere, foreign investors are establishing and planning the expansion of vast territories, exploiting and resettling indigenous populations and using their labour and resources for export. This is all for the purpose of strengthening already powerful foreign economies, largely at the expense of less powerful ones.
Yes the players have changed; instead of the 15th century European powers of Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal, we now see investment from hegemonic powers and dominant superpowers jostling for greater economic power on the world stage. This state of affairs indicates that we have not come so far from colonialist politics. The new colonialism has begun.
Image From: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/world/land-grabs-in-africa-threaten-greater-poverty-61869.html
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