An unprecedented land grab is taking place around the world. Fearing future food shortages or eager to profit from them, the world's wealthiest and most acquisitive countries, corporations, and individuals have been buying and leasing vast tracts of land around the world. The scale is astounding: parcels the size of small countries are being gobbled up across the plains of Africa, the paddy fields of Southeast Asia, the jungles of South America, and the prairies of Eastern Europe. Veteran science writer Fred Pearce spent a year circling the globe to find out who was doing the buying, whose land was being taken over, and what the effect of these massive land deals seems to be.
The Land Grabbers is a first-of-its-kind exposé that reveals the scale and the human costs of the land grab, one of the most profound ethical, environmental, and economic issues facing the globalized world in the twenty-first century. The corporations, speculators, and governments scooping up land cheap in the developing world claim that industrial-scale farming will help local economies. But Pearce's research reveals a far more troubling reality. While some mega-farms are ethically run, all too often poor farmers and cattle herders are evicted from ancestral lands or cut off from water sources. The good jobs promised by foreign capitalists and home governments alike fail to materialize. Hungry nations are being forced to export their food to the wealthy, and corporate potentates run fiefdoms oblivious to the country beyond their fences.
Pearce's story is populated with larger-than-life characters, from financier George Soros and industry tycoon Richard Branson, to Gulf state sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, British barons, and Burmese generals. We discover why Goldman Sachs is buying up the Chinese poultry industry, what Lord Rothschild and a legendary 1970s asset-stripper are doing in the backwoods of Brazil, and what plans a Saudi oil billionaire has for Ethiopia. Along the way, Pearce introduces us to the people who actually live on, and live off of, the supposedly "empty" land that is being grabbed, from Cambodian peasants, victimized first by the Khmer Rouge and now by crony capitalism, to African pastoralists confined to ever-smaller tracts.
Over the next few decades, land grabbing may matter more, to more of the planet's people, than even climate change. It will affect who eats and who does not, who gets richer and who gets poorer, and whether agrarian societies can exist outside corporate control. It is the new battle over who owns the planet.
Fred Pearce is an award-winning former news editor at New Scientist. Currently its environmental and development consultant, he has also written for Audubon, Popular Science, Time, the Boston Globe, and Natural History and writes a regular column for the Guardian. He has been honored as UK environmental journalist of the year, among other awards. His many books include When the Rivers Run Dry, With Speed and Violence, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, and The Coming Population Crash.
Gambella, Ethiopia: Tragedy in the Commons
Referring to westerners who buy land in Africa, Fred Pearce writes, “The question is whether the new colonialists are there to develop Africa or ransack its resources. Will they feed the worldor just the bottom line?” Do you think any of the land grabbers are invested in helping the African people? Is it possible for them to make a positive impact? Why or why not?
Pearce writes, “The land is our supermarket and our grain reserve.” In what ways has our society become distanced from this concept? How does that distance hurt our relationship with other societies and with the environment?
Chicago, U.S.A.: The Price of Food
In this chapter, Pearce writes, “Speculators are no longer oiling the wheels of the global food supply engine. They are in charge of a runaway train.” Were you surprised to learn how market speculation may have impacted the world food supply? Can you think of a viable solution to this problem?
Saudi Arabia: Ploughing in the Petrodollars
Some nations, like Saudi Arabia, engage in land-grabbing in order to prevent a food shortage. Are their fears of foreign dependence justified? How else could their needs be addressed?
South Sudan: Up the Nile with the Capitalists of Chaos
Chapter 4 highlights the vague and confusing terms in which land-grab deals are often phrased. How do these vagaries and loopholes benefit the “capitalists of chaos”?
Yala Swamp, Kenya: One Man’s Dominion
In this chapter, Pearce writes, “The story of Yala swamp shows how even outsiders with the best of intentions can create severe problems.” Were you aware of the ineffective and even harmful aspects of environmental foreign aid? If Calvin Burgess really had good intentions, how did his plans go wrong?
Liberia: The Resource Curse
The land grabs in Liberia were especially harmful because the nation’s tyrant ruler sold logging rights in order to buy arms. What are your thoughts on the intersecting nature of many of Africa’s political and humanitarian issues? What other roles have foreign land grabs played in relation to those issues?
Palm Bay, Liberia: Return of the Oil Palm
Pearce writes that Peter Bayliss’s palm-oil plantation is “as good as it gets.” What traits make it less problematic than most of the other enterprises described in this book? What could other land grabbers learn from this example?
London, England: Pinstripes and Pitchforks
How are “ordinary people” convinced to invest in land-grab schemes? How might westerners be provided with more information about the effects of land grabbing?
Pearce writes that “Ukraine is potentially the breadbasket of Europe” but “thanks to the political turmoil and the dead hand of bureaucracy those soils have never fulfilled their potential.” Were you surprised by the strong role politics has played in creating food shortages? How do land grabs exacerbate the situation?
Western Bahia, Brazil: Soylandia
More than 60% of the Brazilian cerrado has been lost to industrial farming, but Pearce writes that “the outrage has been minimal.” Why do you think that is? What factors decide whether or not this kind of crisis comes to be widely known and condemned?
Chaco, Paraguay: Chaco Apocalyptico
The Chaco is known as a “museum of biodiversity” and the home of uncontacted tribes, and Pearce clearly condemns its destruction. However, he also tells the complex stories of some of the people who have caused that destruction. How do you feel about the Mennonites and the Moonies after reading his account? Why do you think Pearce shared both sides of the story?
Latin America: The New Conquistadors
How did the rubber-tapping industry in South America breed such a devastating environment for its workers? Were you shocked by the descriptions of cruel punishments and slavery-like conditions? Do you think such a thing could happen again?
Patagonia: The Last Place on Earth
How do “green grabs” change or expand your understanding of land grabbing? Do you feel that land grabs for environmental reasons are justified?
Australia: Under the Shade of a Coolibah Tree
In Australia, foreigners have taken advantage of droughts to buy up the land of desperate farmers. Pearce writes that Australians are “in danger of becoming servants and not masters of their own food resources.” Should there be laws regulating when and under what circumstances land can be purchased?
Sumatra, Indonesia: Pulping the Jungle
A native of the Riau rain forest tells Pearce, “The district government said that it would issue a warrant for the [logging] company to stop…But the company ignored that. I have had no response since.” Many instances of land grabbing in this book involve a blatant disregard for local, national, and international laws. How could these laws be better enforced? Why aren’t they being enforced now?
Papua New Guinea: “A Truly Wild Island”
How have the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea been effected by logging? Why do you think Pearce calls this “one of the most outrageous, mysterious, and little-known land grabs anywhere in the world”?
Cambodia: Sweet and Sour
Pearce refers to the “casual indifference to people’s rights” that characterizes the land grabs in Cambodia. Can you think of other historical examples of traditional land rights being ignored? What circumstances make this kind of land grabbing possible?
Southeast Asia: Rubber Hits the Road to China
How has China taken control of land throughout Asia? What circumstances cause neighboring countries to agree to fulfill China’s needs?
Maasailand, Tanzania: The White People’s Place
How has the “preservation” of the Serengeti led to the exploitation of the land and its native inhabitants? Does this kind of tourism really benefit the people of Tanzania?
South Africa: Green Grab
Pearce writes that South African land grabbers have “organiz[ed] the expulsion of tribal groups from their land on the pretext of preserving wildlife” and that “[t]he result…was often to alienate the very people who had successfully shared the land with big game for centuries.” What ideas did you have about the indigenous uses of land and wildlife before reading this book? Have your ideas changed?
Pearce writes that the land grabbers are “beginning to look just as narrow and selfish as the imperialists of old.” What do you know about the history of imperialism in Africa? Is the comparison justified?
Africa: The Second Great Trek
Pearce writes about land grabs being carried out with no maps and no authentic leases. Why do so many land deals in Africa involve so little oversight? Who is at fault, and what are their motives?
Mozambique: The Biofuels Bubble
This chapter discusses the complexities of the “carbon footprint” concept. Were you familiar with this concept before reading the chapter? Were you surprised by Pearce's ultimate conclusion about the practicality of biofuels?
Zimbabwe: On the Fast Track
Robert Mugabe’s land reforms ostensibly started as a form of social justice, transferring land from white colonialists to black smallholders. How did this process become corrupt? How do some African governments collude in and benefit from the land grabs that exploit their people?
Central Africa: Laws of the Jungle
What were the original intentions of the carbon-credits system, and how has it been corrupted to serve the needs of land grabbers?
Inner Niger Delta, Mali: West African Water Grab
Water grabs are being carried out in Mali on such a scale that entire communities will be literally unable to sustain themselves. Can you imagine your own community being deprived of vital resources and receiving no aid? What makes the villages of Mali particularly vulnerable?
Badia, Jordan: On the Commons
Had you heard of the “tragedy of the Commons” before you read this chapter? What was your reaction to Pearce’s analysis of this concept?
London, England: Feeding the World
After hearing various sides of the story, what are your beliefs about the future of world food production? Do you agree with Pearce's conclusion that small-scale farming is the answer? What part will land grabs play in this future?
What did the phrase “land grabbing” bring to mind before you read The Land Grabbers? Was there anything in the book that surprised you or changed your notions of this concept?