5 Things to Know About the Global Land Rush and How to Stop It

Yves here. Americans have likely read about squillionaires here buying huge ranches and other tracts of land. They may not be as aware of everyone from US hedge funds to the Chinese buying agricultural land in Africa. Mineral and water rights are another part of this equation that this article does not mention; they are often sold by landowners either for profit or survival reasons. Nevertheless, due to the great geographic spread of this activity plus the fact that in many cases, the transactions are reported only in local government registers, it’s extremely difficult to get a handle on the scale. The conference described below is an effort to remedy that and to organize against the high odds of environmental abuse and resource exploitation.

By Salena Tramel, the senior global learning coordinator at Grassroots International and a researcher of political ecology at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. Originally published at Common Dreams

If one thing is clear coming out of the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing last month in Bogotá, it is that the land rush is here to stay—and it’s gaining momentum. The concept of land rush serves as an umbrella for the multidimensional land grabs that occur at different scales. It helps us grasp chaotic and insurgent moments—such as the one now underway—which are pushed forward by multiple actors and often involve violence.

The gathering in Colombia, organized by the Land Deal Politics Initiative, was an important moment to assess the current state of play and ready strategies to face the current and impending onslaught of land grabs. It was a cutting edge convergence of frontline social movement leaders, unapologetically progressive researchers, and policymakers with backgrounds in grassroots organizing—all dedicated to land politics and representing 69 countries.

The land rushes that are reproduced to sustain capitalism are held up by intersecting levers of oppression, among them class fragmentation and socially constructed identity politics like race and gender.

These efforts come at a critical time, when the media’s spotlight on land grabbing has dimmed—signaling that the practice has become a routine part of international politics. The following are five key takeaways from the meeting in Colombia about the state of the land rush and the resistance that seeks to stop it in its tracks.

1. The Old Guard Marches On

Grabbing land, natural resources, and territory has always been an integral part of capitalism. The system thrives on crises—the more, the more profitable—which in turn provoke waves of uneven development. Contemporary land grabs are a layering of these factors, all of which are extractive in nature. When the 2008 food price crisis became ensnarled with global disruptions in finance and energy, it reconfigured large-scale land grabs as the world has come to know them.

Although agribusiness has been a defining feature of decades of neoliberal reforms, it has proliferated even more across the global South in recent years—turning peasant farms and Indigenous forests into monocrop business ventures. A striking case is that of Tanzania, one of the most heavily targeted countries for land grabs 15 years ago. Now it is bracing for a new surge of land deals for mass export crops, made worse by the oppressive seed policies that have been imposed throughout the African continent. These older land deals are on the map to stay, and the situation is further complicated by their newer counterparts.

2. Climate Politics Signify the Perfect Storm

Green and blue grabs—the idea of “selling nature to save it”—masquerade as a solution to the climate crisis and have resulted in an advanced surge of extraction, commodification, and financialization of nature. Such initiatives have brought new actors to the scene of the extractive economy, some of whom initially opposed it, in a vastly complicated alliance.

Cambodia, for instance, was the first country in Southeast Asia to endorse the Blue Skies & Net Zero 2050 campaign, which is one of the latest developments in carbon trading—earlier versions of which have devastated rural communitiesthrough massive land, water, and forest grabs. International financial and intergovernmental institutions continue to blame farmers, fishers, and forest dwellers for worsening climate change through “backwards” techniques—when the real culprit is violent foreign intervention coupled with decades of natural resource grabs led by agribusiness. Instead of attacking this problem at its root, programs like Net Zero make promises to resolve hunger, unemployment, and the climate crisis at once. The devil, however, is in the details—in this case shouldering local Cambodian peasants with the burden of mitigating big corporate pollution from abroad, unavoidably leading to more land grabs.

3. Resurging Violent Conflicts and Geopolitics

Land, water, and food have long been weaponized against marginalized populations through extreme violence. While our understanding of contemporary land grabs has often been one of transactionary land deals, usually large in scale, and often synonymous with agribusiness, we have yet to fully incorporate land seizures carried out through military invasions and wars into the equation. We must expand our conceptualization of the land rush to more comprehensively include these factors, also paying attention to the geopolitical environments in which they unfold.

An important link here is that for many peasant and Indigenous populations, land is not only a resource, but also territory. Seeing land grabbing as territory grabbing is a way of coming to terms with how land capture in violent conflict is an abduction of people, movements, culture, and history. As such, it has resounding place-specific and collective implications. Today genocide and ecocide in Gaza as a result of the Israeli invasion have refocused global attention on the question of Palestine. Analyzing these actions as territory grabs may contribute to a more just resolution of violent conflict—not only in Palestine, but also in other militarized geopolitical contexts as diverse as Haiti, Sudan, Myanmar, and Ukraine.

4. Colonization Is Alive and Well

The land rushes that are reproduced to sustain capitalism are held up by intersecting levers of oppression, among them class fragmentation and socially constructed identity politics like race and gender. These forced divisions are the driving force behind past and present colonial projects. Across the Americas, the plantation economy was made possible by the enslaved labor of Black bodies, the removal of Indigenous ones, and the cheapening of female and gender nonconforming ones. Struggles for independence and liberation from these processes have only partially been won, which is illustrated by modern land grabbing as an extension of plantation economies.

Land grabbing feeds on race, class, and gender as overlapping forms of oppression—and as such affects the Global North in addition to the Global South. In the highly racialized context of the United States, agribusiness continues to operate on lands stolen from Indigenous peoples with the labor of undocumented migrants—many of them displaced by extractive activities led by the United States in countries south of its Mexican border.

5. Peasant and Indigenous Movements Lead the Resistance

If anyone knows the true value of land, it is the peasant and Indigenous communities that have ensured its survival across borders and generations. These groups of people are consistently hunted alongside the natural resources they seek to protect. Their demands—for ending and rolling back land grabs—are most often disregarded as idealistic at best and downright undoable at worst.

But against all odds, and frequently faced with great danger, social movements are winning struggles for territory. This work occurs in sophisticated alliances that straddle local, national, and international organizing efforts. Colombia was selected as the host country for the gathering against land grabbing precisely for these reasons, with hopes that bearing witness to the history being written there could inspire political gains elsewhere. From its Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, to its vast farmlands that fade into the Amazonian and Andean forests, rural communities are taking back territory—under the protection of an amenable government that is committed to an ongoing process of putting into place peasant and Indigenous autonomous zones.

Social movements are building strong convergences with politically aligned scholars and policymakers to prepare for the next phases of their still-uphill battle against the land rush—not only in Colombia, but around the world.

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  1. ДжММ

    I wonder, if the people of Tanzania decided to ignore his Deed of Title, and to use “his” land for themselves, what could the head of Berkshire Hathaway do? I doubt he could fight off more than a few of them, even if he were armed…

    1. Dessa

      More likely that he’d grease a few palms in Washington and they’d drum up some nonsense about terrorism before sending in a “peacekeeping” force

  2. Cristobal

    As historical experience in the American west has shown, title to land is only good if the title holder also controls the government. The fracturing of the ¨rules based order¨ I believe will result in some areas in which those titles will be respected, and others where they will not. For instance, Ukraine.

  3. Michael Hudson

    There is a simple solution: A tax to fully collect the land’s rental value. That would prevent land prices from rising (as a result of capitalizing the rising rents), removing the speculative function. A pollution tax to make owners pay for what are now “external economies” would require rejecting the international ISDS court that makes governments pay for any increased tax or penalty against foreign investors.

    1. t

      A lot of the US land we’re talking about already has enormous tax advantages and in some cases credits and incentives. Agriculture, wilderness, etc.
      Maybe we could start by getting rid of Real estate investment trusts.

    2. zach

      Who collects the tax? How many countries (tax jurisdictions) are there in Africa? There’s at least 50 in the Unites States. Wouldn’t they all need to have a uniform tax code for that to work?

      I agree, that is a simple solution.

      1. MFB

        Presumably, the government would collect the tax, since it is the government of the country whose people stand to lose from foreigners buying up all the land. In the United States this would be the Federal government, not the state government. So Hudson’s position is, actually, fairly simple.

        Of course, nearly no African government would do that, and obviously the US government wouldn’t do that, so Hudson’s position is utopian. But I think his is a thought experiment.

    3. Ignacio

      There is another one: confiscation of the land which has lots of historical precedents.. Very much like when, for instance, in the XIX century, land from religious organizations was confiscated in Spain. Next is article 1 of the confiscation decree by Mendizábal.

      Its article 1 declared: “on sale from now on all real estate of any kind, which had belonged to the religious communities and corporations, and to the others that have been awarded to the Nation for any type or reason, and also all those who from now on were so from the moment of their adjudication.

      Substitute “religious” by “foreign”. The reason would be the same: that land has to be “liberated” for the development of the country.

    4. Bruce Elrick

      Are there any good examples of jurisdictions that have a successful, modern, land value tax? I’d like to be able to point my provincial representative to one.

    5. Neutrino

      Here is a peripherally-related example.
      Colleges around the US may have land available for development, or buildings to redevelop, too.
      They typically have hiring challenges often due to high rents or ownership costs within plausible commuting distances.
      One solution being used is as follows:
      Restrict buying of existing or new college-related housing by a tiered system of preference, such as faculty/staff first, then students (who may have residence halls as one option), then alums, then finally the general public.
      Use ground leases on that housing to retain long-term property interest.
      Use shared or other appreciation model as another component of income or wealth management while retaining college interest.
      Communicate mission and property operating transparency to all parties from trustees through to end-users.
      There may be variations on the above to allow the college to have greater control over its mission instead of turning that over to the market forces that can cause dislocations, inflationary or less-desirable impacts.

    6. Susan the other

      Taxes are a good method for preventing land abuse and neglect, not just exploitation for profits. There could be graduated scales of tax obligations according to how much effort will be required to bring the land back to health or a requirement to do so and pass an ecological inspection before any sales can close. Effective taxing for any environmental damage, agricultural or industrial, needs to be earmarked for repair and reclamation. If that were implemented it would jump start a new industry. Because land grabbing is profiteering and profiteering is discounting the underlying environmental and societal destruction. Profit needs to start paying its own way.

  4. TomW

    Is normal farmland a great investment? The price of corn I under $5 a bushel, and wheat not much more than $5. And farming is a capital intensive business that produces commodities. The archetype of businesses investors want to avoid.

    And why would any country fight for resources that can be purchased at a reasonable price? And how easily can a global power disrupt global commodity markets? The US couldn’t make more than a minor dent in global oil markets with its Russian oil sanctions.

    The point being that things have changed a lot, and any analysis based on the way things were 100 years ago need to be freshened up.

  5. samm

    “The point being that things have changed a lot, and any analysis based on the way things were 100 years ago need to be freshened up.”

    Yes I think that’s what this article is arguing. It is true details change, particulars remain particulars. But certainly it is also important to not miss the forest for the trees.

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