Kyle T. Kramer

Buy land. They’re not making it any more.” This fitting quotation from Mark Twain opens the scathing investigation by the British science writer Fred Pearce of how “Wall Street, Chinese billionaires, oil sheiks, and agribusiness are buying up huge tracts of land in a hungry, crowded world.” With prose that is well-honed in style but blunt in relating the facts on the ground, Pearce reports his findings from the year he spent circling the globe to document the phenomenon of “land-grabbing.”

The Land Grabbers explores a fundamental question: Does feeding the world and protecting its last remaining wild places require wresting the remaining “global commons” from native inhabitants and delivering it into the hands of wealthy countries, corporations and individuals? Pearce answers with an emphatic no, sharing heart-breaking vignettes from Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and elsewhere to make his case.

The land-grabbing Pearce describes takes several different forms, ranging from bare-knuckled, profit-driven capitalism to well-intentioned environmentalism and economic development. Some corporations seek raw materials: Indonesian trees for paper and plywood, Burmese rubber latex for car tires, Ghanaian jatropha plants for biofuels. Investors—from aggressive hedge funds to conservative pension funds—see profit to be made by developing foreign land they deem as “underutilized” (though local inhabitants tend to disagree).

Some countries are striving for food security. Desert-challenged Saudi Arabia and population-challenged India, for example, lease enormous swaths of the Gambella lowlands of Ethiopia, growing rice for export back to their home country. In the last 25 years, Brazil has plowed under almost 300 million acres (an area the size of Britain, France, and Germany combined) of its cerrado, the most biologically diverse savannah grassland in the world—mainly to grow soybeans to feed beef cattle in China.

Some allege benevolent intentions for grabbing foreign land. The wealthy Christian evangelist Calvin Burgess’s Dominion Farms is draining the Yala Swamp in Western Kenya to grow rice on an industrial scale. Burgess came with the ostensible philanthropic goal of helping the local people with economic development and was initially hailed as “the father of food.” But many of the swamp’s displaced inhabitants now complain that “in the end he brought us hunger.”

Finally, Pearce documents the phenomenon of “green-grabbing.” Tycoons like Ted Turner and the Italian Bennetton family (of clothing empire fame) purchased multi-million-acre chunks of Argentine and Chilean Patagonia as ecological reserves: their own private “slice of Eden.” Huge sections of the Tanzanian Serengeti have been carved into wildlife enclaves that cater to rich white tourists and hunters. In the name of mitigating climate change, “carbon cowboys” grow rich selling carbon credits from Indonesian jungle, while only a fifth of the income finds its way to the native forest communities.

Whatever the motivation, land-grabs inevitably hurt the native inhabitants, the landscape itself or both. Ly Yong Phat, Cambodia’s well-connected “senator for sugar,” has commandeered the land of Cambodian smallholders with “casual indifference to people’s rights.” Those pushed off their farms in favor of foreign sugar conglomerates compare their displacement to the Khmer Rouge: “‘Pol Pot killed us quickly. This is slow. But they are killing us just the same.’”

In the Serengeti, the native Maasai, whose cattle and shifting cultivation have long co-existed with wild big game, have been pushed into smaller and smaller parcels of land—and then blamed for overgrazing. The Maasai “want to be in charge of their own land, not ‘reduced to bead sellers and recipients of philanthropic help from foreigners.’”

The environmental devastation of for-profit land-grabbing is hard to comprehend. Diverse forest ecosystems in Sumatra, Indonesia, were given away as logging concessions, mainly to Asian plywood and pulp companies; Riau Province went from 80 percent forest cover to 20 percent in just 20 years. Such voracious deforestation makes Indonesia the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. Biodiversity suffers when jungles or swamps are replaced by large monocrop plantations. Rivers and underground aquifers are pumped nearly dry to irrigate thirsty crops like sugar and rice.

How has this happened? Among other factors, Pearce blames corrupt leaders, such as Charles Taylor in Liberia, who sold timber for years to finance that country’s civil war. Many poorer nations often see industrial-scale agriculture as the key to economic development—and rich foreigners have the money and knowledge to invest.

Perhaps the largest problem of all, though, is that many developing countries have little or no tradition of formal, legally recognized property rights: “about four-fifths of [Africa’s] 6 billion acres is not formally owned by anyone other than the state.” If rural inhabitants lack legal title, their land may be sold or leased out from under them. International law also tends to favor the investor: “Even if the locals are starving or parched with thirst,” writes Pearce, “in law the rights of the foreign investor come first.”

Throughout his well-written exposé, Pearce grapples with four key issues: food security, economic development (especially for the poor), a concern for native inhabitants and the need to preserve the ecological integrity of the global commons. In his conclusion, he contests the widespread assumption that only large-scale operations can provide viable solutions. The purpose of big farms, he writes, is ultimately “to please their investors, rather than to feed families.” He argues instead, with ample evidence, that providing resources and assistance to indigenous small-holders is “among the most efficient and effective ways of raising people out of poverty” and stewarding the land well.

Although The Land Grabbers does not refer to any formal theological or moral framework, attentive readers will encounter almost every major principle of Catholic social teaching in the book’s thematic elements. Anyone concerned with land use and the plight of the rural poor in developing nations would do well to let Pearce inform them about an insidious new form of exploitive colonialism.

Kyle T. Kramer a farmer and regular columnist for America, is the author of A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt.