The outcome of last Sunday’s elections in Cambodia, in which Prime Minister Hun Sen hoped to extend his 28-year rule, is in dispute. Even if he continues in office, Hun Sen’s tight grip on civil society is threatened, in part, by public anger against land grabs. In the past decade, his government has handed 73% of Cambodia’s arable land, most of it belonging to small farmers, over to businesses.
On July 24, the Colombian Ambassador to the US, Carlos Urrutia, was forced to resign after the exposé of a shady deal in which he helped sell land to the agribusiness giant Cargill and others. The holdings in questions were covered by a 1994 law protecting land reform and small farmers.
One week prior, on July 19, the nation of Georgia banned the sale of land to foreigners.
Behind these stories, and many more that don’t get brought to our attention, are land reform movements, organizations of indigenous peoples, small farmers, and other citizens. They are responding to the increased sacking of land and other natural resources throughout the global South, and resultant spikes in landlessness and poverty.
National and transnational corporations, sometimes with collusion from the government of the country in question, are snapping up agricultural land to grow industrial-scale commodity crops. Investment firms (private equity, hedge, and pension funds) are in a buying frenzy, too, speculating that they will be able to turn a profit for their investors. An estimated 120 to 200 million acres of land have been sold in international investment deals in recent years, approximately two-thirds of them in Africa. Land is also being taken for biofuel plantations, mining, oil drilling, and other energy projects.
The deals may flat-out illegal, or farmers may be forced to sell due to their dire economic circumstances. Peasant farmers and indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable, as they often lack paper deeds to land they have inhabited for centuries.
Small- and medium-sized farmers are at risk in the global North, too, sometimes forced to sell out because of financial instability. City-dwellers around the world face a parallel situation through foreclosures and corporate development of urban land and public housing.
Some farmers around the world have been driven to despair over their loss of land, overwhelming debt, and inability to continue farming. It is estimated that in India alone, as many as 270,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. This averages about 40 farmers committing suicide daily, and the pace has only been accelerating.
There are other responses to the crisis in both the global South and North. Movements are fighting back to claim land, power, and rights. As just a few indicators:
* This month, Posco, one of the worlds’s biggest steel companies, was forced to give up on its plans to build a steel mill in the state of Karnataka, India. Posco abandoned the $5.3 billion project after years of protest by villagers against its land acquisitions.
In 2011, major demonstrations in the Indian state of Orissa stalled Posco’s seizure of community land for construction of another steel plant. The project is still in limbo.
* “Land to the Tillers!” was the cry of Via Campesina, the global movement of small farmers and landless peoples, on this year’s International Day of Peasant Struggle, April 17. From Canada to Nepal, from Brazil to Switzerland, farmers used the day to march and protest against land grabs.
* In March, in southern Guangdong province, China, protesters clashed with police and security forces once again while opposing some 86 acres of rice paddies being grabbed for use by a cable manufacturing firm. China is enacting a plan to move 250 million rural residents into urban centers over the next 12 years, paving over massive amounts of farmland in the process.
* In November 2011, more than 250 representatives of farmers’ organizations and allies gathered in Mali for the first international farmers’ conference on land grabs. Participants shared experiences, built alliances, and discussed solutions.
* More than 500 organizations worldwide have signed onto the Dakar Appeal Against Land Grabbing, which calls upon governments to immediately cease land grabs and return stolen land to communities.
* In the US, organizations such as GRAIN and the National Family Farm Coalition are painstakingly tracing the flows of funding globally and documenting land grabs backed by investment companies. They are spreading the word that people may be investing their retirement savings in firms that finance land grabs, like TIAA-CREF, and encouraging the public to invest their savings elsewhere.
* As in other parts of the global North, an urban land reform movement in the US is fighting corporate intrusion on urban land and housing. The Right to the City Alliance and Take Back the Land, for example, bring together grassroots and policy groups across the US to prevent foreclosures and evictions, gentrification, and homelessness. In Oakland and elsewhere, Occupy activists ally with threatened homeowners and have halted a number of foreclosures. These and other urban groups are lobbying for policies that promote affordable housing, and calling on banks to turn over vacant foreclosed homes to community land trusts in order to prioritize local communities’ housing needs.
To get involved in protecting farmland and homes:
* Divest your savings or retirement accounts from companies backing land grabs, and ask your employer to offer a pension fund option run by an ethical company. Learn which pension funds are unacceptable via the websites of GRAIN, National Family Farm Coalition, and Farm Land Grab.
* Be vigilant about “development” happening in your community. If you become aware of a recent or a prospective purchase of farmland by an outside investor, document it online through NFFC’s Farmland Monitor, or contact NFFC (information and instructions here).
* Fight bank foreclosures on family homes and farms in the US. Visit the websites of Take Back the Land, Homes for All, Right to the City Alliance, and their member groups all over the country. See if your city has an Occupy our Homes group.
* Join the US call for a moratorium on foreclosures and home evictions. Visit the National Fair Housing Alliance website.
Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the US. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds. She is author of “Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance” and of the forthcoming “Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.” She is also a member of Truthout’s Board of Advisers.
Tory Field is an organizer, farmer, and Research & Education Coordinator at Other Worlds.