Published in Pakistn Today on Tuesday, 30 Oct 2012
Neo-colonialism disguised as opportunity
At this very moment, an indigenous Brazilian tribe is threatening to commit mass suicide over their stolen land where the Belo Monte dam is being built, holding up work. Giant dams need vast lands and largely benefit the middle and upper classes. Globally, they have a history of forcibly displacing and impoverishing helpless rurals who are never compensated for their loss.
Colonialism is alive and well — with one major difference. Today, neo-colonials are no longer content monopolising the output of those same lands; they want to own the lands too.
Earlier this month, activists from South and South-East Asia joined the International Land Coalition and Oxfam in Cambodia at the Asian Land Forum to find ways of stalling the global land-grab. Ironically, Cambodia itself has leased half its arable land to foreign investors.
The entire debt-burdened world is easy prey. The current Oxfam report lists several thousand land deals over the past decade acquiring 260 million acres that could have produced food for a billion people — a modest estimate at four persons per acre fed, whereas an acre can easily support twice as many, even up to 40, using organic techniques to feed two billion.
Between 2000 and 2010, 60 percent of lands produced bio-fuels for western road vehicles. Two-thirds of the investors produced purely for export, not to feed local hungry.
As Oxfam put it succinctly: “… very few if any of these land investments benefit local people or help to fight hunger. Two-thirds of farmland deals by foreign investors are in countries with a serious hunger problem. Instead, the land is either being left idle, as speculators wait for its value to increase and then sell it at a profit, or it is predominantly used to grow crops for export, often for use as bio-fuels. About two-thirds of foreign land investors in developing countries intend to export everything they produce on the land.”
That includes the Arab investors whose ambitious plans in Pakistan include a million acres in Balochistan alone, but are on hold until peace ensures safe implementation.
Do we need them, considering 50 percent of Pakistan’s rural families are landless? The wealthiest four percent of rural landowners own over half of all prime cultivated land, some families with holdings as large as 100,000 acres.
But Pakistan’s juicy offerings include tax exemption for the first decade, no compulsion to hire locally, unrestricted repatriation of produce and profits, no restrictions on water usage – clearly guaranteeing that in 10 years, merciless, large-scale chemical and GM monoculture will render Pakistan’s fragile soils quite dead. What exactly Pakistanis will gain remains unclear.
Unknown to most, in the 1990s, the Benazir government declared corporate farming an industry, unhampered by the Land Acquisition Act of 1904. Nineteen multinationals were reportedly approved. Subsequently, General Musharraf’s like-minded government passed the Corporate Agricultural Farming policy and Corporate Farming Ordinance 2001-2, spelling out the huge incentives and tax breaks to investors. Trade shows and negotiations were held in various Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps the peasant uprising at Okara prompted the promise of a security force of 100,000 to protect all foreign investments.
In 2009, the same mindset in the Zardari government initially offered one million acres and later 6 million more, under a 49- or 99-year lease. It removed caps to landholdings imposed under previous land reforms. Throughout, all decisions were unilateral, sans consultation with the peasant masses or contingency plans for their fate, notwithstanding the fact that on the eve of Pakistan’s independence, the then Pakistan Muslim League had promised to restore all farmland to the tiller. 65 years later, the tillers are still waiting.
Pakistan’s Board of Investment requires $ 3,240 per acre in the first four years, based on requisite industrial machinery and infrastructure to supposedly benefit the country afterwards. But investors do not leave as long as the land yields profits. With a rent of under $5 per acre per year, why leave in a hurry? Tenants have been warned in advance of inevitable eviction.
Since 2009, 150,000 acres in Thar (for bio-fuels), 200,000 acres of land in Balochistan, and 800,000 acres more in secret locations have been reportedly committed.
The World Bank double-facedly provided up to $8 billion a year for large-scale land acquisitions globally. As many as 21 formal protests from the locals affected have gone ignored.
Feudal-minded decision-makers waiting to activate commitments would be well advised to keep in mind the short-lived Madagascar experience. In 2008, its former government unilaterally granted the South Korean Daewoo Corporation a rent-free, 99-year lease for 3.2 million acres – half the island’s entire arable land. It promised 45,000 jobs in place of millions of livelihoods. The outrage and uprising led to a coup overthrowing the government. The deal was scrapped by the new government, which saved the country’s sovereignty.
Some governments don’t realise they are walking on a tightrope.