Land grabbing – from China?

A voracious China and India, racing around the world (and to Africa in particular) in search of resources to fuel their economies (see previous thoughts on rare earth materials) and feed their populations; this is one of the standard subplots in the popular narrative about the rise of the East and decline of the West.

An investigation by John Vidal for the Observer in March focused on the growing pattern of companies and governments from the Middle East and Asia rushing to purchase huge tracts of African farmland for consumers in overseas markets, precipitating concerns about “what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era”, as Vidal calls it. Implications about local food and water security and the displacement of peoples follow, as arable land is used to grow crops not for African publics, but those elsewhere who face constraints on their own food production. And more recently, the writers at Global Dashboard have highlighted the widening remit of land grabs towards forests in order to claim carbon credits, with tangled webs of money and bribes involved.

But a recent story in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper offers a reverse image of this, where a company linked to the Singaporean government is in the midst of planning a 1,450 square km agricultural zone in Jilin province in China’s northeast to provide for Singapore’s future food needs. (The Straits Times website is subscription-only, but a full version is available here). An excerpt:

“The multi-billion-dollar undertaking will involve creating an agricultural space twice the size of Singapore that can churn out everything from pork, beef and milk to rice, strawberries and ginseng.

Dr Ngiam, the former chief of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), tells The Straits Times: ‘From production and processing to research and safety, the idea is that we will be turning out food that’s ready to market, whether it’s fresh, frozen or canned.

‘It’s our most ambitious project to date; it could well fill a very significant portion of Singapore’s future food needs.”

For its Singaporean audience, the article emphasises how Singaporean-level hygiene and disease control standards will be maintained, and of the urgency of sourcing food needs from a widening range of countries. But this example, which runs rather counter to the normal imagery of a land grab, leaves an important question: at what point does the transfer of technology and what might be normally thought of as foreign investment, turn into a land grab?

A feature-length piece in Rolling Stone magazine offers a rather dark vision (the article is titled ‘Capitalists of Chaos’).  Essentially a ‘greed is good’ profile of ex-Wall Street trader Philip Heilberg, his lease of a million acres in southern Sudan (with an eye on more) stands to make him a personal bonanza out of future food scarcity. (The Rolling Stone website is also subscription only, but the article is also available at the photographer’s website here).

In some situations, clearly, this trend can have some very worrying effects. This, however, is far from a given, as analysts from the FAO and International Institute for Environment and Development pointed out last year. Good deals are possible and can enhance the development needs of local peoples, with a balance between government capacity to monitor and enforce agreements, respect for land rights and the commitments of investors to the farmland and wider society at hand.

Volcanic ash nothwithstanding, the future of the world’s food is at the very heart of what patterns of globalization will have to grapple with over the coming century. The image of the all-encompassing sovereign state that textbooks start with has always belied a more complex reality. Shifting and overlapping responsibilities and claims of land ownership, lease and management will only add to that.

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