Investors have been quietly buying up chunks of fertile African and Indonesian farmland in hopes of turning a tidy profit as the world’s population increases by another 2 billion food consumers over the next forty years to 9.1 billion. German news magazine Der Spiegel, in this eye-opening article translated in Salon, reports that the governments of the Gulf States, Egypt, Korea, and South Africa have been helping conglomerates lease and purchase millions of acres of prime farmland in South Sudan, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cambodia. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that as much as 74 million acres have been leased or purchased by foreign interests.
The positive spin on this is that by modernizing agriculture in weaker and poorer states, corporate technology and capital will help them modernize and stabilize into full-fledged democracies. Investors sweeten the deal by promising to build school and pave roads. In the long run, they might even reduce hunger overall.
The negative impact, however, lies in how this new land grab quite possibly signifies a new colonialism, with richer nations exploiting poorer ones for their own capitalist benefit. Giant corporate farms would inevitably drive small subsistence farmers out of business with the help of heft security forces, such as the 100,000 soldiers Pakistan has already deployed to foreign-owned fields. And what will happen when famine inevitably strikes these new colonies? Will corporations share the wealth with their starving neighbors?
Because more than 50 percent of Africans are small farmers, large-scale land acquisition could be disastrous for the population. Those who lose their fields lose everything. The fact that the large investors can substantially improve harvests with their modern agricultural technology is of little use to Africans who, once they have lost their land and livelihood, cannot afford to buy the new farms’ products.
Speculation in human necessities such as food, water, and energy almost always devolves into scams, exploitation, and graft. Perhaps this latest grovel for resources will force us to rethink why our species continues its inevitable race to scarcity at the rate of 221,760 new people per day.