Discussion:Land and water grabbing- are we grasping the phenomenon?

land grabbing

Not everybody is probably aware of what is currently happening to land acquisition in the developing world. It is normal not to be aware as not much information circulates in the news about these incredible facts, at least not as much as it should. This weekly brief will then try to put some light on the issue of land and water grabbing.

 Investments in the developing world are nothing new, for decades developed countries industries’ have decided to relocate their production sites in developing countries gaining from many economic and financial benefits at the expense of questionable social and environmental impacts for the hosting country (although many would argue otherwise). The transfer of activities, of capital and of employment in areas of a country or of the world which have competitive advantages (cheap labor force, government’s incentives, tax exemptions etc….) is what characterizes our current world economies.

In the past 10 years because of the global food crisis and food price increases, food-insecure countries (ex: China, Egypt, India, Gulf states etc…) try to source food production from less-developed countries (Gamundi and Hanks, 2011) by investing massively in land. This new trend brings to the forefront many discussions and debates such as if land grabbing is often associated to secure other natural resources and whether these deals create win-win situation for the investing and hosting countries. Some of these issues are further discussed below.

With land acquisition comes the issue of water resources. In the Economist article of 2009, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestlé, claimed that the deals were mainly about water and not entirely about land as “with the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries essentially a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal” (The Economist, 2009). So water and food stressed countries instead of buying the goods they need on the world market they are directly buying the resources in other’s countries in other to provide their countries’ food and water security.

Some argue that from this deals the hosting countries might gain a lot, as they are promised a lot of money, job opportunities for the local population and local investments for rural infrastructures and new agricultural technologies in their countries (Von Braun and Meinzen Dick, 2009). Other argue that we are experiencing “a globalization with Chinese characteristics” (see Hofman and Ho, 2011) or talk about neocolonialism (GRAIN, 2010). Many others however, analyzed that hosting countries have much more to loose than to gain out of these deals as illustrated below by the most cited examples found in the literature.

In 2009 Saudi investor invested a lot of money in Ethiopia for securing their country’s cereal production. They are allowed to export back their food production and are exempted from taxes, the Economist (2009) revealed that in that same period instead the World Food Programme was investing millions of dollars in Ethiopia to save million of lives threatened by hunger and malnutrition.

In Madagascar in 2008 the government without consulting its citizens decided to sell 1.2 million hectares of land – one third of Madagascar’s farmland – to a Korean company (Horring, 2011), massive demonstration led the fall of the government in charge and to stop the deal.

In Malawi same kind of demonstration scenario happened stopping the deal between the Malawian government and a British company (Horring, 2011).

In Mali the government by giving away land to a Libyan company “granted the company priority access to water during the dry season. As a result, local producers suffered reduced access to water from the Niger River, the main source of irrigation water in the region.” (Horring, 2011:3).

Concluding, it is important to notice that land grabbing is not only happening for food and water security reasons but also for energetic ones (Osava, 2011). Much foreign land in developing countries is being bought to grow biofuels as alternative to oil. Whatever the reasons for such investments the problem behind them is that they raise many concerns.

In fact, poor countries’ national sovereignty suffers from such foreign intrusion of richer countries that have the political and financial strength to dictate the terms of the contracts. These deals have been proved to be environmentally damaging for the hosting countries as often environmental control systems do not exist – they also constitute a paradox in which food insecure countries give away there land to secure other (often richer) countries’ food security. Furthermore, the consequences on local population are said to be dramatic as these lands bought by big corporation are often used by local people living of subsistent agriculture in the area being sold. The contracts are often economically not worth for the hosting countries as job opportunities for the local population are not granted when these investments have the goal to generate employment for the investing country’s citizens abroad and to export its own equipment (Osava, 2011).

Land grabbing therefore raises many questions and concerns, it could be helpful that these events be discussed and recognized at the international level in order to put some boundaries and control mechanisms on such speculative land markets deals. It should be also wise that hosting countries build their capacity to evaluate the real consequences and have the strength to set the rules when bargaining such arrangements. It would not hurt also to make more studies and research on this phenomenon that is currently under-searched in order to really assess what are the benefits and drawbacks for the different parties. It is of course easier said than done; however, it seems extremely necessary.

Giorgia Donin


Hofman I. and Ho P., 2011, Rethinking China’s ‘land grabs’: Chinese land investments in Central Asia. Available at:http://www.iias.nl/sites/default/files/IIAS_NL58_21.pdf (Accessed 14 November 2011)

Horing U., 2009, Water and Land Grabbing, Ecumenical AdvocacyAlliance, Geneva: Switzerland.

Gamundi and Hanks, 2011, Land-Grab Loopholes in Latin America. Available at: http://www.worldpress.org/Americas/3794.cfm (Accessed 14 November 2011)

GRAIN, 2010, Land Grabbing in Latin America, Available at: http://www.grain.org/article/entries/3995-land-grabbing-in-latin-america (Accessed 14 November 2011)

The Economist, 2009, Outsourcing’s third wave. Available at : http://www.economist.com/node/13692889 . (Accessed 14 November 2011)

Osava M., 2011, China and Brazil Inundate Latin America with Dams. Available at: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=54329 (Accessed 14 November 2011)

Von Braun J. and Meinzen Dick R., 2009, Land Grabbing” by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities. IFPR policy brief 13.

Photo courtesy of farmlandgrab.org

Ecosystem Services- Let’s Put Or Let’s Not Put A Price On Nature?

This weekly news brief will focus on ecosystem services and the potential benefits or drawbacks that can derive from putting a financial value on natural ecosystems.

“An ecosystem is a community of animals and plants interacting with one another and with their physical environment. Ecosystems include physical and chemical components, such as soils, water, and nutrients that support the organisms living within them. These organisms may range from large animals and plants to microscopic bacteria. Ecosystems include the interactions among all organisms in a given habitat. People are part of ecosystems. The health and wellbeing of human populations depends upon the services provided by ecosystems and their components – organisms, soil, water, and nutrients.” (ESA, 2000:1). We then benefit for “free” and without necessarily knowing it from the services that natural ecosystems create such as seeds dispersion, drought and floods mitigation, pollination, climate stability etc.

These natural services are difficult to duplicate but are essential for our well being.  This however did not stop human populations from disrupting or impairing ecosystems through for example: runoff of pesticides, fertilizers, and animal wastes, pollution of land, water, and air resources, introduction of non-native species, erosion of soils, deforestation, urban sprawl etc.(ESA, 2000)

The question was then raised on how to understand and therefore prevent ecosystems degradation. With respect to the evaluation of ecosystems services monetary pricing evaluation is the most common method used as the examples below illustrate:

– Much of the Mississippi River Valley’s natural flood protection services were destroyed when adjacent wetlands were drained and channels altered. As a result, the 1993 floods resulted in property damages estimated at twelve billion dollars partially from the inability of the Valley to lessen the impacts of the high volumes of water. (ESA, 2000:2)

– Over 100,000 different animal species – including bats, bees, flies, moths, beetles, birds, and butterflies – provide free pollination services. One third of human food comes from plants pollinated by wild pollinators. The value of pollination services from wild pollinators in the U.S. alone is estimated at four to six billion dollars per year. (ESA, 2000:2)

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment is one of the most advanced interdisciplinary assessment of ecosystems and services in the world and it states that ecosystem services are typically “ignored” and given a “value of zero” in political decision-making (UKNEA,2011). To compensate this lack of political interest, ecosystem studies like the UK national assessment try to give a financial value to the services that ecosystems provide in order to make in a practical way decision makers aware of the importance of preserving ecosystem services.

The problem with this approach raised by many scholars is that by doing this we risk to put a dollar value on ecosystem services, by reducing them down to an economic rationalist framework.

Although ecosystems services assessment like the UK one try to put into the equation well being values (ex: health and shared social value) rather than just economic ones, the assessment recognized that the paucity of information on social values and the difficulty to quantify them constrained their understanding of how to account for them in decision-making (UKNEA,2011).

The debate is therefore still open. With which argument do you agree with?

Giving a financial value to ecosystems services provide that governments, businesses and consumers can understand the gravity of the problem (Anderson, 2010)?

Or that Nature conservation must be framed as a moral issue and argued as such to policy-makers, who are just as accustomed to making decisions based on morality as on finances. Therefore it is not the best way to meaningfully engage policy-makers driven by translating the worth of nature into the language of economics (McCauley, 2006)?