Pacific Land Grab Among World’s Worst

Via RadioAustralia, a report from an international expert on land-grabbing who says the Pacific has some of the world’s worst examples of the practice:

Land-grabbing happens when, usually foreign companies, buy or lease large tracts of land for a pittance robbing traditional owners of a birthright that has been theirs for generations and which should be providing an economic future for their children.

In Vanuatu, almost all the waterfront land on the main island of Efate has been lost to traditional owners and much of the inland has been handed over to farming companies.

In Papua New Guinea the scandal over Special Agricultual and Business leases has seen 5 million hectares leased out, much of it without landowner permission.

Award-winning British science and environment writer, Fred Pearce, travelled to the epicentre of land-grabbing in Africa, and to Asia, South America, and Australia.

He says the land scandal in Papua New Guinea, which saw 11 per cent of the country’s land mass leased out in less than a decade, is up there with the worst.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett

Speaker: Fred Pearce, author, ‘The Landgrabbers: The new fight over who owns the Earth’

PEARCE: Land grabs in Africa are huge but I don’t think many countries would get as far as 11 per cent but there are some exceptions. South Sudan when it became a new nation a couple of years ago had already leased out 10 per cent of its land, even before it was formed the interim government had done that. In Liberia, in West Africa, according to some analyses, three quarters of the land is leased out in some form to foreign companies, whether they are rubber plantation companies or loggers or mining companies. So some Afric an countries are doing things on the scale of Papua New Guinea.

GARRETT: The way land-grabbers go about their business is very different in Africa. What do people in Papua New Guinea have to learn from the experience there?

PEARCE: I think if you are looking at Africa you see the dangers of having unclear law. There are many examples in Africa, where communities in theory have rights to their land but there are also other claimants and other people who can show bits of paper or other people who can wave a different law and say ‘no we have the rights’ so there is a great deal of confusion in many parts of Africa. Communities think they have control of their land but it turns out that they don’t. And that is a real difficulty. So you have a problem with bad law and then a failure to enforce what law is available. And those are precisely the circumstances in which large land grabbers can use the muscle, their financial muscle, to take control.

GARRETT: In Papua New Guinea much of the land under the Special Agricultural Business Leases has been alienated for the first time ever. NGOs, academics and others are calling for revocation of suspect leases. How important is that, if the original traditional landowners are to maintain the rights they do supposedly have under law?

PEARCE: It is essential certainly to clarify the law but obviously to clarify the law in favour of the traditional claimants of the land, who ought to after all have the prior rights even if there has been some confusion, subsequently. It is their land. A big problem in Africa is that in the 1960s and the 1970s after independence a lot of the land was taken over by the state, usually with socialist agendas, ‘we’ll take over the land for the benefit of the people’. And many communities were happy with that. They thought that was reasonable in the optimism of independence but now they are finding governments are leasing out this land to foreign corporations. The land that they took to benefit the people is now being leased to foreign corporations in the name of some rather dubious ideas about how to do economic development. So there are real problems when governments do that.

GARRETT: A recent study by the ANZ bank suggests that Papua New Guinea will need to double the land it has under agriculture in the next few years to meet their 2030 targets. What are the risks with such a big increase in the area of land under agriculture?

PEARCE: The risks of having an agenda driven by the desire to increase food production, is that you hand over the land to foreign corporations who will say ‘we will increase the productivity, we will increase the yields, we will invest in the land’. So many governments are desperate for investment in their land in their agric land that they will do almost anything to encourage a foreign company to come in and do that. The truth is that governments very often should be investing in their own people, in the skills of their own people, in their small holders and others who can deliver the yields just as well. But in Africa, especially over the last 40 years since independence, there has been very little investment in small holder agriculture so it is lagging behind, it desperately needs investment but I think governments should be investing in their own people rather than leasing out land to foreign corporations whose ultimate obligations after all are to their shareholders in foreign countries and not to the countries in which they are investing.

GARRETT: Often when governments take these steps it is to increase jobs, to provide jobs in agriculture. Can small-holder agriculture provide those jobs?

PEARCE: Small holder agriculture provides a lot more employment, a lot more livelihoods than most foreign investment. Most foreign investors want to do mechanised agriculture, they don’t want to use labour even when it is available. And when they use labour they frequently bring in labour from outside, because they perceive probably quite rightly, that their kind of investment is going to create conflict with local communities. Local communities are going to start demanding things in return and they don’t want to be in that kind of relationship. They want a labour force which is acquiescent which they can move out if it starts getting angry about anything. So as I saw all across Africa and elsewhere, what you see is foreign investors bringing in their own labour force. If you go to places in Indonesia, I was in Sumatra, they bring in labour from a different island because they don’t want to work with the locals, or a different country in parts of Africa or a different part of the country. They really don’t want to employ the locals because the locals can demand more than an acquiescent shipped-in workforce.

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About This Blog And Its Author
Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at and frontier investment markets at