Land grabbing has maintained consistent growth that is in line with past trends. But awareness has also increased. This means that the topic is covered in the media in countries where freedom of the press allows it and has become part of a public debate. Because of this concern, governments are with greater caution and some agreements fell through due to public pressure. This is the case, for example, with the agreement between the Italian-Senegalese company Senethanol and the Dakar government. There is a civil society that is concerned and worried about the phenomenon in the countries of both the South and the West. So in recent years investments have continued, but with no significant acceleration compared to 2008, when it all started.
Up until 2011, you wrote that governments and corporations had captured around 45 million hectares of land around the world, especially in developing countries: an area which is slightly less than the size of Spain. Making a comparison with the size of a State today, which would you choose?
Today the surface area taken up is more or less double the size of Spain. Most of the land is not sold, but leased (leasing) for very long periods. Usually 25, 50 or 99 years, even if the investment horizon is actually reduced because whoever wants to make a profit has an interest for this to occur within the first five years and then they usually leave those same lands. For this reason, in the face of unclear agreements, we can only make estimates ranging from 60 to 300 million acres. This equates with a dimension ranging from the size of France to the whole of Western Europe. I believe that the true estimate lies somewhere in between. The biggest problem though is what is going to be imposed is a model of agricultural production that is very different from the family farming that has existed for centuries in those places. It is a more impactful, monoculture production model.
What are the motivations that drive the purchasing countries to buy or to lease foreign lands? For example, what role do they play in all of this climate change and population growth?
The only country that has invested in this phenomenon for a real problem of development is Saudi Arabia which has decided to outsource agricultural production because its territory is not in a position to meet domestic needs. Most of the players involved, however, are made up of financial funds, and investors from the financial sector, much more than other countries and multinational corporations; players who think only of profit. And this leads to a "financialization" of the food chain, the arrival of those who until now were not interested in the sector.
You, other persons and NGOs speak of neo-colonialism. But this time it is not only Western countries that are taking part in the race to grab land. Are there other non-Western countries who are actually participating in this new form of investment?
In addition to Saudi Arabia, Qatar is also looking to outsource its agricultural production. As regards the expression "neocolonialism", it can be used up to a certain point. From a formal point of view, that is, from the removal of resources from countries or private entities such as financial funds and foreign corporations, this form of land grabbing is very similar to the colonialism of the past. It is less so if you look at how it is not coercive or forced.
In fact, your book shows that the Ethiopian government would have an active role in the sale of land. What is the real responsibility of the governments of the countries in the developing world because, unlike the colonial period, isn’t this just like armies conquering new territories?
There is a consensus on the part of the governments of the countries in the developing world and they have some responsibility. They choose to market their lands, also under the pressure of international organizations like the World Bank and the FAO, because they believe, in good faith, that such forms of investment are the vector of economic development. Another aspect to consider is that in some countries, corruption is a very serious problem. And then there is an inferiority complex that has led governments to put huge portions of territory on the market at low prices and on very favorable terms convinced that only foreign direct investment can help them grow economically.
If you were to draw a map of land grabbing, what would be the country with the most territories outside the "homeland"?
United States, Brazil, the Gulf States, European countries and South Korea. These countries are very active abroad. Brazil, for example, is investing in the Portuguese-speaking African countries, such as Mozambique and Angola. However, the phenomenon itself suffers, even though in a different light here because the land issue is very old and the knowledge of indigenous peoples and of the Brazilian population is very high, thus making the land-grabbing less predatory. Meanwhile the worst situations are found in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Tanzania, Ethiopia and Sudan, where the phenomenon is recent, where governance is lower and civil society is less active.
Is land grabbing something we will hear about more and more, or are you already doing something to curb the phenomenon?
This is not a transient phenomenon, but something that goes on a regular basis. If things do not change, investment in land will be very profitable. However, it is difficult to predict because there are many factors at play that can change the interest of investors. The guidelines adopted in 2012 by the Committee for Food Security of the FAO contain a number of non-binding declarations but are the result of negotiations with the participation of representatives both of governments that have given and give lands, and representatives of the countries that acquire. It is a purely formal regulation, but one which, if adhered to, could mitigate the phenomenon of land grabbing.