The business of land

Post Source: The News, Thursday, September 17, 2009
By Kamila Hyat

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

So far in 2009, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 50 million acres of farmland has been sold or negotiated for sale or lease. More deals are due to be finalised within months.

The trend is reported by analysts to be accelerating rapidly, with rich countries buying up arable land in poor nations to ensure their own food security. The food crisis of 2008, when unexpectedly large resources had to be used to acquire food, is a factor in triggering what some believe is the largest land grab since the colonial era. There are also apprehensions that it could have a similar impact, depriving impoverished people of control over their own resources and potentially expanding hunger in nations which themselves lack food security.

Sudan is one example of this. Despite being one of the least food secure nations in the world, it has sold or leased some of the largest tracts of land. Severe resource shortages are obviously a factor in this. South Korea has acquired 700,000 hectares in the country and five other countries have bought large holdings where they will grow food crops or raise livestock to ensure adequate supplies for their own people. The millions of hungry people in Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and even Ethiopia may find that, as a result of these deals which often involve land with the best water supplies or access to roads and ports, they may have even less food available to them than before. The people of Pakistan may face exactly the same situation.

Talk of an agreement to lease land to Gulf countries has been heard since 2007, when the idea was first floated as a means to raise revenue – even if it meant a depletion of the increasingly meagre cupboard of valuables Pakistan has left to sell. Protests voiced at the time seem to have led to the deal being put on the back burner, though low key talks apparently continued. The PPP government – eager to put the interests of the Saudis ahead of those of the people who voted it to power — has moved ahead with the deal, with talks on in earnest with the Saudis to lease out 500,000 acres of land which with help the desert kingdom, heavily reliant on food imports, to secure food security for itself. The Saudis have already bought or leased land for similar purposes in Africa and have reportedly abandoned projects aimed at providing enough water to grow wheat and other crops at home, preferring the cheaper option of simply growing them elsewhere.

At the farmlands, to be acquired in all four provinces in Pakistan, special security forces would be deployed around the lands – which would be converted by high-tech agricultural inputs into waving seas of food – to ‘protect’ them and also to prevent local people from reaching the abundance in their midst. Presumably, these people, many of whom struggle to acquire a single meal a day, would watch helplessly as food grown on land which should, by right, feed them is whisked away. The verses of Iqbal about people rising up to burn land which does nothing to silence their pangs of hunger come to mind. Since the days of Iqbal, hunger has not abated. It may instead have expanded. In its most recent Global Hunger Index, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute ranked Pakistan as a nation where levels of hunger were ‘alarming’. Findings which confirm the hunger everywhere in our nation are, sadly, seldom seen as ‘newsworthy’ by the media.

It is not yet known if land which was already under cultivation will be handed over to the Saudis, though this is possible in a country which bears so heavy a burden of population and where there are so many landless farmers. Pakistan has already stated that it plans to lease still more land to Middle Eastern countries. The UAE and Qatar are both stated to be in the queue to acquire agricultural estates.

The land lease deal, supporters hold, would introduce modern farming technologies to Pakistan, increase investment thus offering the economy a badly needed boost and lead to an increase in employment as Pakistani staff is hired. It would also help cement ties between Islamabad and Riyadh, adding to the solid alliance between the two nations. Saudi Arabia has after all baled Pakistan out from difficult situations more than once. These arguments cannot be dismissed entirely. Indeed the fact that they do exist is one explanation as to why the new trend has taken off so swiftly across the globe, catching almost everyone by surprise. But the intensive agricultural practices that will take place on these lands will also deplete them, leaving behind a poorer soil. Rich nations can of course move on and simply buy ‘new’ lands elsewhere. Countries like Pakistan may be left with vast tracts of land infested with chemicals and with available water supplies reduced to them as the acquifer is sucked to supply the foreign farms. Will this, in time, mean more hunger? More starvation? More ecological and human devastation? These are the questions that must be asked and answered.

But these are not the only questions. The possession of lands owned by other governments and corporations within any country will have an inevitable impact on its sovereignty. If there is any doubt about this, the example of the US-based United Fruit Company in Latin America – involved since the 1800s in the ruthless exploitation of labour, the decimation of forests, bribery to safeguard it own interests and political interference at various levels – should illustrate how this works. Anger directed against the corporation simmers on; some hold it responsible for rampant corruption and instable governments. In the case of the Saudis, it is also worth keeping in mind that for all the expression of love and affection, relationships at the tier of the people have quite often been troubled. Hunting parties and other groups from the Middle East have in the past been accused by local people of arrogance, uncouth behaviour and harassment. They may be no truth behind such accusations, but they do suggest some of the problems that could arise in a situation where a large number of people from outside are brought into a particular area.

It is unfortunate that even as deals that involve land which should belong to the people of Pakistan are struck, there has been so little public debate about the plan. We need to be informed of what is planned. Protests need too to be mobilized. In the prevailing political environment of Pakistan, the people who stand to lose the most have almost no spokesmen. It is up to civil society groups to fill this gap. The global land sales and leases have caused disquiet at many forums. But so far they have not triggered an outcry on the scale that would have been expected – raising fears of a further tilting of the odds against the poor people of the world in the years to come.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

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