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The Land Grabbers

The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth

Author: Fred Pearce

A startlingly investigation into why corporations, soverign wealth funds, private hedge funds, and individuals are buying up enormous tracts of land in developing countries--and the human dispossession and environmental devastation in the land grab’s wake

One of Bloomberg Business Week’s Best Books of 2012

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.

In The Land Grabbers, veteran journalist Fred Pearce presents a first-of-its-kind expose 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. 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.
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“A powerful piece of journalism that illuminates how the drive for expanded food production is transforming the planet. Anyone who cares where her next meal is coming from should read it.” —Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post

“Compelling and well-researched.” —Wendy Wolford, Nature

“A thorough and enlightening expos‚àöv†.” —Gaia Vince, Conservation

“With new data-laden reports and academic papers coming out on a seemingly weekly basis describing the dynamics of global land grabs, Pearce’s book plays a valuable role in bringing to life the human element involved in these deals, including both affected local communities and investors. . . . [He] provides a wide range of relatively balanced perspectives, even while making clear arguments in favor of local rights and expressing outrage at the bureaucrats and investors whose interests do not always align with the local communities’.” —Fred Nelson, World Policy blog

“This is just what the world has been waiting for: a detailed overview of the land grabs that are the principal manifestation of a new geopolitics of food.” —Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge

From the Introduction

“Buy land. They’re not making it any more.” --Mark Twain

Soaring grain prices and fears about future food supplies are triggering a global land grab. Gulf sheikhs, Chinese state corporations, Wall Street speculators, Russian oligarchs, Indian microchip billionaires, doomsday fatalists, Midwestern missionaries, and City of London hedge-fund slickers are scouring the globe for cheap land to feed their people, their bottom lines, or their consciences. Chunks of land the size of small countries are exchanging hands for a song. So who precisely are the buyers--and whose land is being taken over?

I spent a year circling the globe to find out, interviewing the grabbers and the grabbed on every continent, from Jeddah, London, and Chicago to Sumatra, Paraguay, and Liberia. Almost everyone seems to be a land grabber today. My cast of characters includes super-financier George Soros and super-industrialist Richard Branson; Colombian narco-terrorists and Italian heiresses; an Irish dairy farmer in the Saudi desert and the recent commander of British land forces, now tilling soil in Guinea; gun runners and the couple who sold the world high fashion with the Patagonia brand before buying the wild lands of the same name.

I discovered how logging concessions in central Africa may have helped elect Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France; what Lord Rothschild and a legendary 1970s asset stripper are doing in the backwoods of Brazil; who is buying Laos and Liberia, and who already owns Swaziland; how Goldman Sachs added tens of millions to the world’s starving; the dramatic contrast between Kenya’s Happy Valley and Zimbabwe’s Hippo Valley; who grabbed a tenth of the new state of South Sudan even before it raised its flag; why Qatar is everywhere; and what links a black-skinned Saudi billionaire to Bill Clinton, Ethiopia’s ex-freedom-fighting prime minister, and rich cattle pastures at the head of the Nile.

I found an evangelical American ex¬±prison boss draining bogs on the shores of Lake Victoria; a dapper English banker plowing up the Brazilian cerrado grasslands; Saudi sheikhs in Sudan, extending the world’s largest sugar farm; the Moonies seeking “heavenly life” by grabbing Paraguayan jungles; and Gaddafi’s doomed henchmen annexing black earth in Ukraine and yellow sands in Mali. The Kidmans and Windsors and Gettys and Khashoggis and Oppenheimers are in there too--and most likely you, or at least your pension fund, have a slice of the action.

Some regard the term land grabbers as pejorative. But it is widely used, and the subject of academic conferences. I use it here to describe any contentious acquisition of large-scale land rights by a foreigner or other “outsider,” whatever the legal status of the transaction. It’s not all bad, but it all merits attention. And that is the purpose of this book.

I have been in awe at the grabbers’ sheer ambition, and sometimes at their open-hearted altruism too. Some want to save their nations from a coming “perfect storm” of rising population, changing diets, and climate change. Others look forward to making a killing as the storm hits. Many believe they will do good along the way. But I have been appalled at the damage that often results from their actions.

Their hosts share much of the blame for what goes wrong. After years of neglecting their agriculture, African governments are suddenly keen to invest. Their desire for a quick fix to deep-seated problems makes foreign investors, with their big promises, attractive. Many governments ask few questions when investors come calling. They clear the land of existing inhabitants, and often don’t even ask for rent. There is often an unspoken cultural cringe, in which foreign is always considered best. The investment, ministers believe, will inevitably bring food and jobs to their people. But such easy assurances rarely work out, for reasons that are social, environmental, economic, geopolitical--and sometimes a toxic mix of all four.

There is much uncertainty about how much land has been “grabbed,” and how firm the grasp of the grabbers is. In 2010, the World Bank came up with a figure of 120 million acres. The Global Land Project, an international research network, hazarded 150 million acres. The Land Deal Politics Initiative, another network of researchers that helped organize a conference in Britain on land grabbing in mid-2011, totted up 200 million acres. Within weeks, Oxfam, an aid agency, published its own estimate of 560 million acres. The truth is nobody knows. There is no central register; there is little national transparency. Some of the largest deals were done in secret and unknown even to the most diligent NGOs, while other deals have attracted headlines but have never come to fruition. I have tried to disentangle the truth about individual projects, but I have not attempted any global figure.

I hope I have reported fairly. I did find new mega-farms with thoughtful managers who make sure to offer secure jobs, food, and basic social services to their workers and their families. I found others with vibrant “out-grower” schemes that supported nearby peasant farmers and bought their produce. I found investors with a long-term view. But I also found poor farmers and cattle herders who woke up to find themselves evicted from their ancestral lands; corporate potentates running enclave fiefdoms oblivious to the country beyond their fences; warlords selling land they don’t own to financiers they have never met; hungry nations forced to export their food to the wealthy; and speculators who buy land and then disappear without trace. I was reminded repeatedly of scenes from books like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

This is not about ideology. It is about what works. What will feed the world and what will feed the world’s poorest. But what works has to do with human rights and access to natural resources, as well as maximizing tons per acre. As one agribusiness proponent, James Siggs of Toronto-based Feronia, admitted at an investment conference in 2011, “exclusively industrial-scale farming displaces and alienates peoples, creates few jobs and causes social disruption.”

Yet industrial-scale farming is what most land grabbers have in mind. According to Graham Davies, consultant to the British private equity company Altima Partners, the “vast majority” of investors in Africa are only interested in commercial Western-style agriculture, “largely ignoring” the continent’s 60 million small farms that produce 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s farm produce.

It is important to know what agribusiness can and cannot deliver. But it is equally important to be angered by the appalling injustice of people having their ancestral land pulled from beneath their feet. And to question the arrogance and ignorance surrounding claims, by home governments and Western investors alike, that huge areas of Africa are “empty” lands only awaiting the magic of foreign hands and foreign capital. And to balk at the patina of virtue that often surrounds environmentalists eagerly taking other people’s land in the interests of protecting wildlife. What right do “green grabbers” have to take peasant fields and pastures to grow biofuels, cordon off rich pastures for nature conservation, shut up forests as carbon stores, and fence in wilderness as playpens and hunting grounds for rich sponsors? They are cooking up a “tragedy of the commons” in reverse.

Over the next few decades I believe land grabbing will matter more, to more of the planet’s people, even than climate change. The new land rush looks increasingly like a final enclosure of the planet’s wild places, a last roundup on the global commons. Is this the inevitable cost of feeding the world and protecting its surviving wildlife? Must the world’s billion or so peasants and pastoralists give up their hinterlands in order to nourish the rest of us? Or is this a new colonialism that should be confronted--the moment when localism and communalism fight back?

I began and ended my journey round the world in the cockpit of the greatest land grab in history--the unfenced plains of Africa, where governments, corporations, and peasants seem set to fight for the soil of their continent. I started with a man called Omot.

Part one : land wars

Chapter 1 Gambella, Ethiopia
Tragedy in the Commons

Chapter 2 Chicago, U.S.A.
The Price of Food

Chapter 3 Saudi Arabia
Plowing in the Petrodollars

Chapter 4 South Sudan
Up the Nile with the Capitalists of Chaos

Part two : White Men in Africa

Chapter 5 Yala Swamp, Kenya
One Manís Dominion

Chapter 6 Liberia
The Resource Curse

Chapter 7 Palm Bay, Liberia
Return of the Oil Palm

Chapter 8 London, England
Pinstripes and Pitchforks

Part three : Across the Globe

Chapter 9 Ukraine

Chapter 10 Western Bahia, Brazil

Chapter 11 Chaco, Paraguay
Chaco Apocalyptico

Chapter 12 Latin America
The New Conquistadors

Chapter 13 Patagonia
The Last Place on Earth

Chapter 14 Australia
Under the Shade of a Coolibah Tree

Part four : China ís backyard

Chapter 15 Sumatra, Indonesia
Pulping the Jungle

Chapter 16 Papua New Guinea
ìA Truly Wild Islandî

Chapter 17 Cambodia
Sweet and Sour

Chapter 18 Southeast Asia
Rubber Hits the Road to China

Part five : African dreams

Chapter 19 Maasailand, Tanzania
The White Peopleís Place

Chapter 20 South Africa
Green Grab

Chapter 21 Africa
The Second Great Trek

Chapter 22 Mozambique
The Biofuels Bubble

Chapter 23 Zimbabwe
On the Fast Track

Part six : the last enclosure

Chapter 24 Central Africa
Laws of the Jungle

Chapter 25 Inner Niger Delta, Mali
West African Water Grab

Chapter 26 Badia, Jordan
On the Commons

Chapter 27 London, England
Feeding the World

notes on sources

  • Click here to listen to an interview on New Hampshire Public Radio's Word of Mouth
  • Click here to read a Booklist review of The Land Grabbers
  • Click here to read a review of The Land Grabbers in Conservation Magazine
  • Click here to read a Booklist review of The Land Grabbers
  • Clickhere to read an excerpt on Utne Reader
  • Clickhere to read a review in OnEarth magazine
  • Click here to listen to an interview on Ecotopia, KZFR radio on August 28, 2012
  • Clickhere to read a review on The World Policy Journal's blog
  • Click here to read an interview with author Fred Pearce in Sage Magazine
  • Click here to read an article by Pearce on Yale360
  • Click here to see Pearce's article mentioned in The Huffington Post
  • Click here to read Pearce's article on the blog, Cold Air Currents
  • Click here to read Pearce's article in The Houston Chronicle
  • Click here to read Pearce's article on the blog Tomorrow's Table
  • Click here to read an article by Pearce at
  • Click here to read Pearce's article on
  • Click here to read an article by the author on Living Green Magazine
  • Clickhere to read an article by the author on Science20
  • Click here to read an article by the author on
  • Click here to read an article by the author on the Envionrmental Health & Safety News blog
  • Click here to read the author's article on
  • Click here to see The Land Grabbers on Bloomberg's BusinessWeek best books of 2012

Who are the Land Grabbers? Google Map | Downloadable Flier


About the Book

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. 

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“Pearce’s provokingly fascinating exposé raises complex and urgent issues.”—Booklist

“A well-researched, informative and accessible look at important economic and agricultural issues.”— Kirkus Reviews

“This is just what the world has been waiting for—a detailed overview of the land grabs that are the principal manifestation of a new geopolitics of food.”— Lester R. Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge 

“The remarkable Fred Pearce has done it again: in The Land Grabbers he opens up vastly important new terrain few of us have even noticed. When the rich and powerful start buying up the planet's fundamental resources—land and water—from the poor and vulnerable, we'd all better notice.”—James Gustave Speth, author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability 
“Wherever on this earth poor villagers, agribusiness magnates, ignorant or corrupt governments, petrodollars, commodity traders and hungry multitudes come together, Fred Pearce is at the nexus, brilliantly reporting on the biggest swindle of the 21st century. With the modern landgrab, the enclosure movement has attained planetary proportions and Pearce is without peer in describing the dire consequences of this ongoing human and environmental disaster.”—Susan George, author, Hijacking America, board president, the Transnational Institute

"Pearce may be the only person to visit all the critical frontlines worldwide, and his brilliant reporting makes the abstraction real. Probably the most important environmental book anyone could read right now.”—Timothy Searchinger, fellow, German Marshall Fund; research scholar, Princeton University

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About the Author

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.

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Questions for Discussion

    Chapter 1
    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 world—or 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?

    Chapter 2
    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?

    Chapter 3
    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?

    Chapter 4
    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”?

    Chapter 5
    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?

    Chapter 6
    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?

    Chapter 7
    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?

    Chapter 8
    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?

    Chapter 9
    Ukraine: Lebensraum
    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?

    Chapter 10
    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?

    Chapter 11
    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?

    Chapter 12
    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?

    Chapter 13
    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?

    Chapter 14
    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?

    Chapter 15
    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?

    Chapter 16
    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”?

    Chapter 17
    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?

    Chapter 18
    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?

    Chapter 19
    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?

    Chapter 20
    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?

    Chapter 21
    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?

    Chapter 22
    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?

    Chapter 23
    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?

    Chapter 24
    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?

    Chapter 25
    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?

    Chapter 26
    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?

    Chapter 27
    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?

    After reading
    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?

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The Land Grabbers

ISBN: 978-080700341-1
Publication Date: 3/26/2013
Pages: 336
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $17.00
Format: Paperback
Availability: In stock.
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