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Is the Land Grab Problem Over-Hyped?

June 12, 2013
Papua New Guineans Protest Land Grabs in 2011. Image courtesy Greenpeace.

Papua New Guineans Protest Land Grabs in 2011. Image courtesy Greenpeace.

The BBC yesterday reported on a new database covering global land acquisitions by governments and private investors and arrived at the conclusion that the level of land grabs is exaggerated. The Land Matrix, which bills itself as “a global and independent land monitoring initiative that promotes transparency and accountability in decisions over land and investment,” concluded that there is considerable hype in the global land market, driven predominately by investment companies trying to influence the market and by concerns over the growing role of China.

But in its latest study, Land Matrix concludes that about 46 million hectares of land has changed hands in 756 verified land deals. About half of all transactions have taken place in Africa, with the bulk of those taking place in Ethiopia and Mozambique. Land deals that are occurring are generally equally divided between production of food and fuel crops.

Frequently, reports of massive land deals—like a 10 million hectare purchase of land in the Republic of the Congo by the South African National Farmers’ Union—wind up being whittled down from their initially reported size. In the case of the Congo deal, the initial 10 million hectare purchase wound up being signed for 80,000 hectares instead.

The problem of direct acquisition of land is overstated, Land Matrix concludes. Instead, indirect instruments are being deployed more often. Rather than directly purchasing the land (and drawing lots of media attention), foreign investors are instead buying controlling stakes in local agribusinesses that control the land directly. This prevents greater scrutiny but still gives the investor access to (and ultimately control over) the land in question. But because these sorts of deals are far more difficult to trace, they often fall outside the Land Matrix’s analysis. It’s the hidden side of global land grabs.

And this hidden side of global land grabs carries all the dangers associated with land grabs in their more traditional form.

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