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The great land grab

May 09, 2009

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The produce of these farms will go to the countries that have invested. Any surplus will be sold to the highest bidders, and presumably be fed into the supply chain that supports huge supermarkets across the world. - Reuters photo
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THESE days, as we follow the struggle against the Taliban in the northwest, we can be forgiven for missing other important news.

For instance, I had filed away a report on plans to lease large chunks of agricultural land in Punjab and Sindh to overseas investors in the back of my mind, planning to write about it later. When I ran a Google search on the subject, however, I realised the enormity of the scam.

For starters, millions of acres are up for grabs. Some of this land is being sold or leased directly by private owners, while the government will hand over vast swathes of its own land which small farmers are currently working. In one deal alone with Qatar, 25,000 villagers around Kollurkar in Punjab may be dislocated.

This giant land grab is global, with many states and corporations acquiring land in poor countries to ensure food supplies for their own people, as well as for the global marketplace. This trend was accelerated in the recent period of food shortages and price hikes when governments realised they were vulnerable to worldwide shortages. In its introduction to a recent investigative report on the phenomenon, Grain magazine says

'Today's food and financial crises have, in tandem, triggered a new global land grab. On the one hand, 'food insecure' governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungering for profits in the midst of a deepening financial crisis, see investments in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue. As a result, fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated. If left unchecked, this global land grab could spell the end of small-scale farming and rural livelihood in numerous places around the world.'

In a sense, this is nothing new. Giant corporations have been farming across the globe, and selling agricultural products in supermarkets from Manchester to Mumbai. What has changed is the scale of the operation. Thus far, global farming has been practised on tracts of land bought or sold in under-populated regions. And while there has been local resentment, by and large, foreign capital has brought employment and new skills.

However, Pakistan has a huge and growing population, and water shortage is making farming, especially in lower Sindh, a precarious occupation. Pakistan's water resources can hardly sustain intensive farming on the scale being planned. In addition, families displaced by this land grab will have no alternative work. Already, Madagascar has experienced political problems culminating in a coup as a result of a similar deal signed with South Korea's Daewoo Corporation.

To get an idea of the scale of the land grab, the UAE alone plans to acquire close to a million acres in Pakistan, according to the Food Policy Research Institute. Others in line are Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In most cases, these governments have teamed up with large business groups like the MAP Services Group, Al Rabbie and Al Qadra.

Most of these deals, aimed at growing wheat, rice and vegetables as well as dairy farming, are based on a model that will see the products going to the countries that have invested. Any surplus will be sold to the highest bidders, and presumably be fed into the supply chain that supports huge supermarkets across the world.

Those who favour this arrangement argue that it would bring in investment and technology, apart from creating thousands of jobs. They overlook the fact that it would also throw thousands of small farmers off their land. In many cases, these are tenants working large private holdings or government land. They have been farming this land for generations, and will suddenly find it has been handed over to foreigners from under them. And while they may be offered the option to work as guards or menial helpers, they will lose all autonomy, being transformed from independent farmers to workers on a daily wage.

No doubt an important component of these deals would be an assured supply of water. But given the shortages we are already experiencing, we can be sure that local farmers will be at a disadvantage when the authorities allocate canal water.

To the best of my knowledge, the government has not disclosed details of any of the deals it has signed or is currently negotiating. For instance, at what rate is state land being sold or leased? At what price will the new owners buy water? And will they be paid normal duties on farm machinery and chemicals they import? These are only some of the questions that need to be answered. However, before we discuss the details, we need to debate whether we should be getting into these deals at all.

The reality is that Pakistan has a population of around 180 million, and the majority is dependent on farming in one way or another. Generally, the techniques they use are outdated and produce a fraction of what mechanised farming would. But if they are thrown off their farms in the name of productivity, where will they go, and what will they do? Only a small number of them would be given jobs by the new owners, and the government needs to announce how it will house and feed the rest.

Abraaj Capital of the UAE plans to acquire 800,000 acres of 'barren' land in Pakistan to grow wheat and rice, as well as to have a commercial dairy farm. Clearly, huge volumes of water would be needed for such an operation. Where will it come from?

Over the years, we have been selling state assets in order to balance the books. Despite flogging the family silver, we remain teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. No doubt our financial wizards think they have hit on a new way to exploit our limited resources. Putting aside the whole question of how many millions changed hands under the table, a large number of questions remain unanswered.

Just over two years ago, I recall the Supreme Court admitting a petition complaining of high vegetable prices in Islamabad. During the course of the hearings, the honourable judges asked for a list of the owners of the Chak Shehzad farms outside the capital that had been allocated by CDA for small-scale vegetable farming. Surely the court could take suo moto notice of the stealthy land grab happening right under its very nose.

irfan.husain@gmail.com