Global corporations and governments are exploiting traditional forms of land tenure to force through a global land grab. It is leading to a net export of calories from Africa and Asia to richer countries and is a major contributor to famine.
In Africa in particular, the neo-colonial forms that have emerged since independence are being exploited to force people off their land and let the corporations in, according to an investigation by the Oakland Institute, an independent think tank. Of the 60m hectares driven on the world market since 2009, 70% is in Africa.
For many years, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund bullied governments into enclosing and privatising land, in order to offer a stable capitalist land ownership model attractive to foreign investors.
The result has been the curse of big landlordism that has destroyed rural communities in India and Bangladesh, for example. Now many of those original private landlords have themselves grown into global corporations and are leading the thrust of Indian capitalism into Africa.
The process is taking an even cruder form under pressure from corporations and governments like the American who are not even waiting about for legal niceties.
Land tenure in many African countries is not by title or enclosure but by customary rights. This is being interpreted to mean that the government owns the land. And so governments are declaring huge tracts of land as “unused”, and declaring groups of their own people to be “squatters”.
This unused land includes millions of hectares used by pastoralists on a seasonal basis; tracts of land left fallow for some years in a centuries-old farming method that allows land to recover its fertility; and forest land that is crucial to people for timber and fruits and also for protecting the water supply. All of this is being classified as unused government-land and the corporations are being ushered in.
The US government is supporting a major push from corporations like Monsanto to force governments to repeal laws against GM crops, for example in Tanzania, where there was a legal framework designed to keep native species free of GM contamination. China is in stiff competition with the US in the rush for African land.
The resulting displacement of people and disruption of communities leads to a bizarre situation where formerly independent farmers are now reliant on food aid whilst the land they farmed is producing crops, using unsustainable modern farming methods, to be exported to richer countries.
Also coming into play are what the Oakland Institute calls “false climate solutions”, where the corrupt carbon emissions offsetting mechanisms are another driver of the global land grab. Some of the world's worst polluters can go on polluting if they plant a tree somewhere else, and often these trees are being inappropriately planted on land grabbed in Africa.
As the OI report says: "At the end of the day, Africans are losing their food-producing land and water resources to crops being used for agrofuels in other countries. The unwelcome surprise is that the production of these crops, with industrial fertilizers, equipment and processing, will do more harm heating the planet than provide climate solutions."
It may not be possible to restore the traditional land rights that prevailed across the world before capitalist forms of enclosure and privatisation, but we can develop and implement a new model.
We can only end famine, offer fair land rights and protect the ecology of the planets by formulating an idea for a democratic shared commons. There are plenty of models for this, from community land trusts on the Scottish islands to farmers' co-operatives, and of course traditional forms of tenure as well. The challenge is to bring about the political and economic transformation needed to implement such a project.