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The New Global Enclosures

April 5, 2011

There’s been a great deal of concern expressed in recent months over the global land grab. From Indonesia to Tanzania, global investors from capital-rich, resource-poor countries are purchasing land across the global south. The issue rose to such prominence that even the World Bank has weighed in, issuing a report entitled “Rising Global Interest in Farmland” in 2010, in which they warn of the dangers associated with the lack of transparency and the potential risks to the world’s poor while simultaneously endorsing land grabs in the name of increased efficiency, productivity, and sound investment. According to the World Bank’s figures, in 2009 global land deals rose to 45 million hectares, a ten-fold increase from the year 2000. Two-thirds of those purchases have been in Africa.

The massive increase in demand for farmland occurred at the same time as the spike in global food prices in 2007-08, and raising some serious questions for the world’s subsistence farmers. Theoretically, we can understand the process through the lens of enclosure and primitive accumulation, through which individual farmers are increasingly forced into the market to secure the means of their subsistence and reproduction. Much as the village commons were enclosed across England, Scotland, and Wales between the sixteenth and the nineteen centuries, the communal lands of Africa, Latin America, and Asia today are being increasingly privatized. However, just as the enclosure process was wrought with social dislocation in the English and Scottish countryside, so too is the process likely to result in sharp increases in poverty, inequality, and hunger in the global south today.

And today’s land grabs dwarf the enclosure of the English and Scottish countryside. According to a report by the Economist, in 2009 Sudan signed a deal with South Korea for 690,000 hectares and a separate agreement with the United Arab Emirates for 400,000 hectares. According to the Economist, “An official in Sudan says his country will set aside for Arab governments roughly a fifth of the cultivated land in Africa’s largest country (traditionally known as the breadbasket of the Arab world).: Similar deals are being negotiated by other governments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Mali, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. In Madagascar, a proposed deal with the South Korean Daewoo corporation would have set aside nearly half of Madagascar’s arable land in a 99 year lease that required virtually no taxes or other long-term benefits for Madagascar. Not surprisingly, public protest (and ultimately the overthrow of the government) forced the cancellation of the deal.

To date, much of the land purchased in the global land grab has been dedicated to the production of biofuels. However, as global food prices continue to increase, some of that land may revert back to food production. But given the sharp disparity between the prices commanded for foodstuffs on the global market and what poor, landless laborers can afford to pay, even the reversion of land to the production of food crops may do little to abate the increasing malnutrition associated with higher food prices in the global south.

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