Colonialism is alive and well in most former colonies — with one major difference. Previously, the colonials barged in armed to the teeth, compelling locals to produce selected crops to make fortunes and fuel their Industrial Revolution. Today, the neocolonials are no longer content monopolising the output of those same lands; they want the source of the produce, too — the land itself and the accompanying water supply.
Last week, activist members from South Asia and Southeast Asia joined the International Land Coalition and global development group Oxfam in Cambodia at the Asian Land Forum to find ways of stalling the global land-grab. Ironically, Cambodia itself has leased half of its arable land to foreign investors. The entire debt-burdened world has become easy prey. The just-released report of Oxfam calculates that several thousand land deals over the past decade acquiring 260 million acres could have produced food for a billion people. But that’s a modest estimate suggesting a mere four persons fed per acre, whereas an acre can easily support twice as many or more, even up to 40 people, depending on the soil and techniques employed; traditional, organic methods can actually feed a couple of billion. No excuse for hunger or unemployment. Oxfam found that almost 60 per cent of the land deals between 2000 and 2010 were in developing countries with serious hunger problems, while 60 percent of the lands were to produce biofuels for Western road vehicles. Two-thirds of the investors were producing purely for export, not to feed local hungry. When the financial crash of 2008 sent prices of staples sky high — Pakistan was no exception and the poor had to tighten their belts further — governments passed the buck onto unexplained ‘external’ reasons.
Oxfam put it very succinctly: “… very few if any of these land investments benefit local people or help to fight hunger. Two-thirds of agricultural land deals by foreign investors are in countries with a serious hunger problem. Yet perversely, precious little of this land is being used to feed people in those countries, or going into local markets where it is desperately needed. Instead, the land is either being left idle, as speculators wait for its value to increase and then sell it at a profit, or it is predominantly used to grow crops for export, often for use as biofuels. About two-thirds of foreign land investors in developing countries intend to export everything they produce on the land.”
That includes the Arab investors — whose ambitious plans in Pakistan include a million acres in Balochistan alone — that are on hold until some peace ensures safe implementation. Do we need them? Hardly, considering 50 per cent of Pakistan’s rural families are landless. The wealthiest four per cent of rural landowners own over half of all cultivated land — all prime — in Pakistan, some families with holdings as large as 100,000 acres. But Pakistan’s juicy offerings include tax exemption for the first decade, no compulsion to hire locally, unrestricted repatriation of produce and profits, and no restrictions on water usage — clearly guaranteeing that in 10 years, merciless, large-scale chemical and GM monoculture will render Pakistan’s fragile soils quite dead. What exactly Pakistanis will gain remains unclear.
Unknown to most, in the late 1990s, the Benazir government declared corporate farming an industry, being unhampered by the Land Acquisition Act of 1904. Nineteen multinationals were said to have been approved. Civilian and military governments were like minded on the land score, at least, because in 2001-2, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s government passed the Corporate Agricultural Farming Policy and Corporate Farming Ordinance spelling out the huge incentives and tax breaks to investors. Trade shows and negotiations were held in various Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps, the peasant uprising at Okara prompted the promise of a security force of 100,000 to protect all foreign investments.
In 2009, the Zardari government, with the same mindset, initially offered one million acres and later six million more, under a 49 or 99-year lease. It removed caps to landholdings imposed under previous land reforms. Throughout, all decisions were unilateral, sans consultation with the peasant masses or contingency plans for their fate, notwithstanding the fact that on the eve of Pakistan’s independence, the then-Pakistan Muslim League had promised to restore all farmland to the tiller. Sixty five years later, the tillers are still waiting.
Pakistan’s Board of Investment requires $3,240 per acre in the first four years, seemingly based on what investors themselves plan on in terms of industrial machinery and infrastructure, which the government assumes will benefit them when they are gone. But investors don’t leave as long as the land yields a profit and with a rent of under five dollars per acre per year, why leave in a hurry? Board personnel have even warned tenants they would be evicted once the foreign investors come in.
In 2009, an MoU with a Canadian biofuel company was reported for 150,000 acres in Sindh’s Thar desert. The Middle East press also reported Balochistan’s chief minister signing an MoU with Abraaj Capital for 200,000 acres of land in Balochistan. There were other reports that the UAE, Emirate Sovereign Wealth Funds and Abraaj had together acquired 800,000 acres for agribusiness but the locations remain secret.
Oxfam also called on the double-dealing World Bank to suspend its financing — up to eight billion dollars a year — for large-scale land acquisitions. Twenty-one formal complaints lodged by communities affected by land-grabs have gone ignored.
Feudal Pakistan’s decision-makers waiting to activate pledges already made to foreign investors would be well-advised to keep in mind the short-lived Madagascar experience. In 2008, its former government unilaterally granted the South Korean-owned Daewoo Corporation a rent-free, 99-year lease for 3.2 million acres — half of the island’s entire arable land. It caused widespread outrage because it promised only a paltry 45,000 jobs while displacing millions who survived directly from the land. The government was overthrown in the coup that followed and the deal was scrapped by the new government. When people have nothing left to lose except their lives, they can be driven to behaving unpredictably, even decisively.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2012.
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