By Najma Sadeque
Published in Pakistan Today 28th, February 2012
Today, there are more ways than one to appropriate another country’s territory and, or, resources: it comes in the guise of foreign investment. Well before the crash of 2008 when new avenues for global investment evaporated, farmland became the new target.
Pakistanis were shaken by the land-grabbing phenomena when General Musharaf’s government unilaterally decided to lease lands for foreign corporate farming. Sweeteners were not necessary: he gave them anyway — unlimited acreage with minimum blocs of 1,000 acres, for 50-year periods or more, the first 10 years tax-free; all yields and profits allowed repatriation to the investor’s home country. The idea must have glowed with lip-smacking possibilities, because the new, ‘democratic’ government did not blackball it.
In many former colonies, states happily retain ownership over the same lands previously controlled by colonial powers. These include community lands – known as the commons – which belong collectively to the people, especially the landless, whose survival depends on them. In Pakistan, they are conveniently labeled “state lands”, implying that “elected representatives” – sans public information and mandate — are free to dispose with them as they wish, riding roughshod over those to whom the lands rightfully belong. The issue needs to be raised to assert that such colonial-style exclusivity is no longer justified under democracy. Transferring community lands to peasants — still waiting for the 1947 promise of land being restored to tillers — has not been genuinely attempted in 64 years.
So far the media has exposed only three cases of lands leased out to foreign investors: in Baluchistan, Punjab, and most recently in Sindh, sans any details. A state of insecurity is perhaps why these foreign enterprises have not taken off yet. But the hundreds of deals already struck around the world warn of what to expect.
Governments invariably claim to sell or lease land in the name of economic development. Instead it literally takes food from people’s mouths along with livelihoods, shelter and a way of life.
Recently, GRAIN, and international NGO, released new data of 416 massive land grabs for food crop production by foreign investors covering over 87 million acres of land in 66 countries. They do not include pre-2006 land grabs. Most of some 300 land grabbers are from the agribusiness sector, while financial companies and sovereign wealth funds made a third of the deals. China, India, UK and Germany take the lead, followed by USA, UAE and Saudi Arabia, while the UK is a popular tax haven for land grabbers.
The common denominator throughout the South is that customary laws or rights of usage are no longer recognised, and constitutions do not guarantee protection of community lands. It’s no different in Pakistan where feudals monopolise all prime land, and decision-making governments are feudal-dominated.
Perhaps what outrages most is World Bank’s loan-backings for such investment along with USAID and even major US universities; this in the same breath that World Bank policy purportedly aims to protect smallholders and address unequal negotiations between farmers and big industry.
While hypocrisy is not new in World Bank, many UN agencies such as FAO have been at cross-purposes for some time, working together on the so-called “seven principles of investment”. They actually contradict all principles which demand respecting land and resource rights, ensuring food security, transparency, good governance, consultation and participation, and sustainability. They turn out to be eyewash as they are not binding on governments or investors, and are expected to be voluntarily enforced. In effect, says one activist, the principles of “responsible agricultural investment end up giving a green light to investors.”
In Africa alone, some 3.5 billion acres of commons in 35 nations are at risk. Focus on the Global South points out that World Bank “does not consider agrarian reform or the need that has been expressed to redistribute land and to reorganise the way that land is managed in the countries.” Furthermore, water is taken for granted in land contracts. Locals suffering water shortages are not considered, and no limits are placed on foreigners’ use of natural resources.
The International Land Coalition (ILC) finds this “race for the Earth” threatening some half a billion acres worldwide, having an estimated worth of $6 trillion.
What escapes government and politicians alike in Pakistan is that when they sell or lease land to foreigners, they violate human rights in two ways. – One, they are handing over people’s property to foreigners without consent or mandate of the citizens; and two, by so doing, they are directly and actively exacerbating hunger, loss of livelihood and shelter, and poverty, to line the pockets of vested interests.
Since this government is unlikely to take appropriate action – “roti, kapra, makan” never included land – it’s necessary for other political parties to note that acting in the public interest, long overdue, is now necessary to obtain mass votes.