This article in the Guardian shocked me the other day: “Pension fund managers and hedge funds gather in London on Tuesday for a summit to discuss the next big investment opportunity: buying up swaths of African farmland.” Since when can you invest in other people’s farmland? Apparently, already for a long time: “An estimated 70m hectares of agricultural land – or 5% of Africa – has been sold or leased to western investors since 2000, according to a public database of international land deals. British companies have bought the rights to more than 3m hectares of land in poor countries – the equivalent of almost two-thirds of the UK’s total farmland, according to the International Land Coalition.” The event in London is called Agriculture Investment Summit and it promised that agriculture is one of the greatest investments of these days. To me, it sounds like yet another speculation on the lives of people in the South.
Others simply call this “land-grabbing” which means selling out the developing world to the rich corporations, states and individuals in the developed countries. The NGO Focus on the Global South says that land grabbing is “resulting in widespread displacement and dispossession of rural and urban communities, especially smallhold agricultural producers.” Civil Society Actors all over the planet are fighting against land grabbing. Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food explains: “The real concern behind the development of large-scale investments in farmland is rather that giving land away to investors will result in a type of industrial farming that will have much less powerful poverty-reducing impacts than if access to land and water were improved for the local farming communities. Accelerating the shift towards large-scale, highly mechanized forms of agriculture will not solve the problem of hunger: it will make it worse.”
The topic of land grabbing and selling out nature has also been a topic at Rio+20. The World Development Movement activist Sarah Reader interrupted the Rio the ‘High-level Dialogue on Natural Capital’ – event which she calls “essentially calling for putting a price on nature so it can be traded as a commodity”. The event was about the “Natural Capital Declaration” which “advocates the financial valuation of unpriced natural resources like water and biodiversity and the creation of ‘risk management tools’ for natural capital, potentially opening the door to financial speculation.” You can read all about it here. They also organized an auction of natural beauties at the beach of Rio, you can watch it here:
The World Development Movement also tried to sell these common goods on Ebay and Amazon: “It takes a long time to put together sales pitches for nature – but the auction was pulled by eBay within a couple of hours. It turns out, that although the British government can set up new markets for carbon and biodiversity, we can’t do the same.” Also the plan to sell the Amazon on Amazon didn’t work out.
It’s not unsual that people buy nature. And you might want to say that sometimes it’s also for good reasons – for coservation. Here are some examples: “The Nature Conservancy has sold 92,000 acres of forest in the Adirondacks (USA) to a Danish pension fund as part of a long-term strategy to protect the land from development.”, writes the New York Times in 2009. An organisation working in the field of buying nature is the Rainforest Rescue, they “identify and rescue rainforests at risk of development and protects it forever by converting properties into Nature Refuges and removing all development rights.” If you’re interested in the topic, check out this book: Buying Nature, “The book shows that for more than 200 years, both private purchasers—such as the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land—and governmental agencies have acquired land for conservation. It documents trends of growing complexity in transactions and a blurring of public and private roles.”
The last line is especially interesting: blurring of public and private roles. However effective this strategy might be in protecting certain areas, it is still ethically difficult to justify. Think about it: how can it be that a piece of the Amazon rainforest – home to indigenous people, plants and thousand of animal species belongs to some rich people in the North? And what happens if that person – who might or might not have had the conservation of the land at the heart of the investment – suddenly needs money, if he inherits that piece of land to his son who doesn’t care about rainforests or if the local living people want to do something with “their” land, in other words nature is not there to be sold because it’s a common good, not a commodity and we must see that it stays that way.