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Rich Nations Buying Up Land in Poor Countries at Escalating Rate

As concerns over food security – and maintaining a lavish lifestyle – deepen, people in poor nations are seeing their land whittled away as it gets sold to wealthy nation states and corporations.

The era of cheap food is over….

Some of us have followed the news on the recent coup d’état in Madagascar. Since January 2009 over 170 people were killed in protests before President Ravalomanana resigned as President. (Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, had already declared himself the country’s leader a month earlier.) But, did you know that the actions of the South Korean car manufacturer, Daewoo, were a major rallying point for the drama?

Because of the food crisis of 2008, Daewoo negotiated to ‘develop’ 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of land on Madagascar – equivalent to almost half of the country’s arable land(!) – so they can grow corn and palm oil to send back to Korea. Much of this land is yet ‘undeveloped’, which means it is still biodiverse rich rainforest…. And, what’s more, locals in Madagascar will get nothing in return but a few new job openings from the multinational.

A major investment proposal by South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics became a rallying point for Rajoelina in late 2008. Ravalomanana critics like Rajoelina questioned the government’s offer to Daewoo of a 99-year lease for 3.2 million acres of land for large corn and palm oil plantations. The Ravalomanana government claimed that the projects would bring infrastructure investments and create hundreds of jobs for Malagasy farm workers, but Rajoelina argued that the plantations would displace too many farmers from their land. The proposed deal also raised ethical concerns about allocating almost half of the country’s arable land for export crops while the country continues to import rice, a basic staple of the Malagasy diet.


… Chronic food insecurity affects approximately 65 percent of the population. – Madagascar’s 2009 Political Crisis (PDF), by Lauren Ploch, Analyst in African Affairs

The United Nations have not recognised the new/temporary leader – but despite what these wealthy countries may think of him, after the coup he rescinded the Daewoo deal, stating the nation’s constitution forbids the sale or lease of their land. (Daewoo seems reluctant to release its grip on some of the land, however.)

South Korea’s self-sufficiency rate is only about 25%. If you exclude rice, the country imports about 95% of its food (source). Last year’s fuel price rises caused food production and transportation costs to skyrocket and resulted in several countries putting export bans in place to protect their own food stores. Most expect fuel prices to rise significantly again within the next 1 – 3 years (read my post on this here). With grain stores internationally at their lowest since the 1970s, food insecurity has become a top priority – iPods, plasma screens and electric toothbrushes just aren’t so interesting when you’re hungry. Not only are there mouths to feed, but, as in any high demand situation, there’s also a lot of money to be made. Both of these facets can easily cause any ethical considerations to get tossed aside.

This land grab seems to be just the tip of the iceberg as many countries – from Saudi Arabia to China, South Africa to Sweden, Libya to India – seek to insure themselves against an uncertain future.

The acquisition of farmland from the world’s poor by rich countries and international corporations is accelerating at an alarming rate, with an area half the size of Europe’s farmland targeted in the last six months, reports from UN officials and agriculture experts say.

New reports from the UN and analysts in India, Washington and London estimate that at least 30m hectares is being acquired to grow food for countries such as China and the Gulf states who cannot produce enough for their populations. According to the UN, the trend is accelerating and could severely impair the ability of poor countries to feed themselves.


Devinder Sharma, analyst with the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security in India, predicted civil unrest.

"Outsourcing food production will ensure food security for investing countries but would leave behind a trail of hunger, starvation and food scarcities for local populations," he said. "The environmental tab of highly intensive farming – devastated soils, dry aquifer, and ruined ecology from chemical infestation – will be left for the host country to pick up." – Guardian

One of the worst aspects of globalisation is that our international dealings become faceless. Money and goods change hands, but the ‘relationship factor’ – such an important aspect a century ago – is stretched, or non-existent today. Our goods are produced as far away and as cheaply as possible. We buy coffee or chocolate off the shelf here in the north, totally oblivious to the conditions of child workers that were involved in its production. We throw cellophane wrapped packs of steak into the trolley – unaware that it took thousands of gallons of water, lashings of oil and acres of rainforest to produce.

The true cost of production is out of sight, and so out of mind, and these land grabs are the ultimate example of this.

Even as food concerns are rising and evidencing themselves in this alarming way, we’re increasingly eating higher up the food chain – we’re moving towards a more land/soil/water/energy intensive meat and dairy based diet. Countries like China, Korea and India are responding to our billboard advertising, and to the perception that western ways should be the goal of every fashionable consumer, by eating increasing amounts of meat and milk – and even eating things they never regarded as food before, like ‘rotten milk’ (cheese).

Slim, healthy, happy bovines promote a ‘hip’ new McDonald’s meat based diet
to Chinese consumers from billboards across the country

"You need it for what??


And worse, it is estimated that about a fifth (only a basic estimate – the real figure could be a lot higher) of the land purchased or leased would be used to create biofuels (hence the Daewoo palm oil intentions, for example), literally taking food from mouths to put into petrol tanks.

With these land grabs, nations that have exploited their own soils and misused their water supplies and aquifers are now turning to gorge on those of poorer states – ‘poorer’ only because these people haven’t yet learned how to exploit, market and adulterate their own resources for short term gain. If you think a South Korean or Saudi Arabian or Swedish businessman is really going to consider the long term ecological and social consequences of what would otherwise become a highly lucrative, low-overhead deal made in a country they otherwise have no connection with, you’d be entirely naïve.

The march of industrialised agriculture is now spilling over borders. The big agricultural players, of course, have a vested interest in seeing this scenario move rapidly forward.

Does it really need to be like this?

Sorry if I’m stating the obvious, but in the face of all the social unrest and the environmental disasters that will surely come of all this, relocalised, small-scale sustainable agriculture systems like Permaculture certainly look like a very attractive alternative to me.


  1. Thanks Craig for writing this thought provoking article. I can understand some of the logic behind purchasing land, basically producing food from land in other country for their own country population survival. Indeed more need to be done to educate people, families to be sustainable in practical ways.

  2. This article is TRULY thought-provoking. I’ll print it out.

    Go here for part of the solution to the problem.

    As long as people in industrialised countries are forced to depend on the automobile to coomute to work and conduct other activities central to daily life, Western-style consumerism will not go away. Once people begin to realize that the lack of an automobile does not mean the end of the world, then and only then will the consumption problem begin to abate.

    Ideally, most people in a city should be able to get to work on time using public mass transit and/or their own two feet.

    Of course making people use trains, subways, buses, and other public transportation to get around does mean consumption of fuels bio and fossil alike, but at least then the problems associated with high, high rates of car ownership will decrease.

    And god forbid if all Chinese in the PRC start eating McDonald’s. Up until now most Chinese women had nice figures ^^

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