“Land Grabbing” — News from International Capitalism States Buy Up Other States’ Territories for the Cultivation of ‘Strategic Agricultural Goods’ — Without Being Invited by the Established Global Economic Powers
[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 3-2010, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]
Political powers and the business people empowered by them “grab land” — this is hardly news. Tapping natural resources in any part of the world is a matter of fact. Developing and exploiting mineral resources requires land rights, on which claims are laid. The cultivation of crops in regions privileged by nature characterizes the modern form of agriculture practiced and propagated by North American and European multinationals. Running plantations requires a sufficient supply of water and extensive land, roads, and ports at one’s disposal. The transportation of liquid and gaseous energy resources to the centers of capitalism, which uses and markets them, requires a global system of pipelines, for which entire states are defined and treated as transit territories. “Land grabbing” takes place all the time for all these cross-border politico-economic needs. And as a further rule, money is paid whenever land under foreign dominion is acquired — proof of a ‘fair deal.’ The current “battle over the Arctic” and over sea beds that have a rich potential in natural resources but no owners also shows that intentions to annex territory politically are not dying out at all — they still belong to the national rights that states both claim and deny each other.
When professional observers of global business practices are currently critically examining the “land grabbing” by some political actors who had previously escaped scrutiny, and feel reminded of a “bygone era of colonialism,” this is, regarded objectively, a bad joke. On the other hand, it is also an index that in our free economic world order not everybody is allowed to do just anything.
What is new about the “new land grabbing”?
1. “Political land acquisition” smacks of “neocolonialism”: nations gain access to foreign production areas for basic agricultural products.
There was a “food crisis” in 2007–08 that featured in the global media as the “tortilla crisis.” It drove the masses to the streets in Latin America and elsewhere; they could no longer afford their traditional staple foods. Since then, there has been an increasing number of news reports from all over the world that ever more states are obtaining territory under foreign rule in order to acquire cultivable land for agricultural raw materials. Their acquisition is not done by military conquest, but in a civilian manner that suits the market economy, i.e., by using money. Countries such as China, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and the Arab ‘oil states’ are buying stakes in — sometimes huge swathes of — fertile land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America for up to a hundred years. In this context, the kind reader learns of rather disreputable things, and more than a few correspondents have come up with nasty headlines like “Neocolonialist Land Acquisition.” A few examples, quoted in spirit or literally:
— Sudan, “Africa’s potential granary,” sells “entire land tracts for grain production to Arab states, while parts of the population are starving and millet is being imported on a huge scale. South Korea alone has signed contracts there for 690,000 hectares, the United Arab Emirates for 400,000 hectares, and Egypt has secured for itself a similar treaty for the cultivation of wheat. All in all, the Sudanese government wants to lease 20% of its cropland to Arab countries.”
— Ethiopia: “At the beginning of this year, the King of Saudi Arabia held a ceremony to accept a portion of rice; it was part of the first harvest produced within the framework of the so-called ‘King Abdullah initiative’ for Saudi agricultural investment activities abroad. The rice had been planted in Ethiopia, where a group of Saudi investors has invested 100 million US dollars to cultivate wheat, barley, and rice. The investors are exempted from taxes for the first few years and are allowed to export the entire harvest back home. Meanwhile, the World Food Program distributes 230,000 metric tons of food aid to the 4.6 million Ethiopians it considers to be threatened by hunger and malnutrition.”
— Laos sells out 15% of its national territory for foreign agricultural production.
— South Korea arranges a land purchase with the government of Madagascar for the Daewoo conglomerate. As a result, “half of the island’s arable soil is available for the production of rice, wheat, and palm oil. The harvests are meant for exports, while Madagascar’s population is dependent on UN food aid programs. The plan was shelved after the fall of the island’s president.”
— The People’s Republic of China, which is acquiring large tracts of land in several countries for the cultivation of rice and wheat, obtains “the right to cultivate oil plants for biofuel in Congo on an area of 2.8 million hectares, creating the world’s largest oil palm plantation. An agrofuel plant project of similar size (2 million hectares) is planned in Zambia.”
— All in all, “20 to 100 million hectares of land” in Africa alone have purportedly been sold in the past two years. The details are not known, as the subjects involved in the trade sometimes prefer to buy and sell “undercover.”
And so on, and so forth.
The buyer states acquire the exclusive right of disposition, i.e., the right to use the land that formally is and remains the political property of the respective sovereignty. But not in order to tap profitably exploitable treasures underground (oil, gas, metals); competition for contracts to develop and market these products continues at full throttle, of course. The issue at stake is the land itself as a condition for the production of agricultural goods, especially for food staples or animal feed (wheat, rice, soybeans…) and plant-based basic products with “dual use”-quality for the manufacture of alternative energy (oil palms, sugar cane, rape, jatropha seeds…). The states concerned bring along their national corporations that are capable — or specifically made capable — of cultivating the crops, or they send the firms ahead while settling legal matters with the respective governments “behind the scenes.” In this way, they provide, once again in conformity with the system, new business opportunities to the state-empowered private owners or the sovereign wealth funds — and a location for their production along with a more or less secure market, since the delivery address for the crops is their home country.
2. Nations see themselves confronted with the really existing global market, which refuses them important services: it denies the political powers their fundamental needs for “food and energy security.”
The starting points for the current “rush for farmland” are well known: first, there is the above-mentioned “new kind of famine” that does not only affect the usual suspects from social classes that are useless for the national economy. Traditional food staples have also become too expensive for workers employed in profitable jobs, i.e., people who draw normal incomes. And second, there are the radical changes on the global energy market, i.e., the national calculations that add the hunt for renewable energy sources to the intensified struggle for oil and gas. The increased reliance on biofuel gives rise to a new type of interest in plant feedstock. This ascribes a second, fundamental meaning to agriculture for the state powers’ need for growth — and with it to the land it requires. Now, the business with bioenergy sources competes with agricultural production for the food market, and is promptly registered as a cause for the “food crisis.” States, and, in fact, those that do not belong to the notorious poverty states but rather to the more ambitious world market participants, and that obtain a substantial part of their food from imports, are noticing that the supply of food to their people is disturbed: access to rice, corn, and wheat is not secure, or is only to be had at extreme or at the least at extremely volatile prices.
The reason for this precarious situation is not difficult to determine. It consists in the business of the protagonists on the global markets, whose calculations determine what is produced, and at what price and under what conditions the agricultural raw materials are distributed. At the same time, these global actors pocket a handsome profit when their reduced supplies meet with increasing purchasing power on the demand side — they raise their prices:
— It is Western, industrial, agribusiness multinationals that often control the entire “value chain,” from crop cultivation to industrial processing to marketing and delivery, and that have conquered the world market. They exploit the human need for food, as long as there is money to pay for it, irrespective of nationality, and at the same time they satisfy the national demand of their home country, mostly successfully. They follow the motto: Everything that maximizes profit is good. This is roughly how it has been going on for several years, as the media, full of understanding, have been propagating: the ‘new middle classes’ of the Asian boom countries want to eat better. The more money that people in China and India can spend on meat, the more expensive animal feed becomes; the more that grain is used for meat production, the scarcer it becomes, i.e., the more in demand as a staple food for humans — and consequently, the higher the financial returns on animal and human feed.
— It is the conglomerates (often the same ones) that see further or better business opportunities in the growing (inter)national need for bio-energy sources. When increasingly more states want to secure their capitalist growth through more independence from oil and through diversification, the multinationals meet this need in order to make a profit from it. They thus exacerbate the food crisis, which they then use for extra profits on the food market.
— It is the financial investors (banks, investment funds of all kinds) whose business consists of turning their own and others’ debts into capital. In comparison to the securities that they created and that have recently failed them, the increasing demand for agricultural raw materials provides a “solid” object for their speculation. They “take a gamble on the agribusiness and on Mother Earth,” using the money offered them by the state at lowest interest rates or the money from private clients willing to speculate, thus hiking the prices and making them more volatile.
The food resource sector has thus joined the classic front of energy resources (oil, gas) as an object of the state’s imperialist concern. It is obvious that the precarious “supply situation” is largely determined by political actors who create these new business conditions and who are then affected by them, finding themselves challenged to defend their national interests:
— There are the powers that, as the primary consumers of growth-spurring energy, foresee the end of (cheap) fossil energy sources and declare a turnaround in energy policy. It is they who compete most strongly over “scarce resources” and — this is true especially for the world power USA — whose wars and threats of war jeopardize the access to the remaining oil and gas resources. By stepping up their quest for alternative sources of energy, thus also making the acquisition and redesignation of farmland attractive, they open up a fight for strategic organic raw materials along with the land to produce them.
— And there are the states that have until recently been considered established and reliable exporters of agricultural products. They now take protectionist measures to secure their domestic food supply, thus impeding the “services to the world market” from their soil. Twenty-five states are said to be limiting the exportation of basic food crops, among them large suppliers to the world market such as Argentina, Thailand, Ukraine, and India.
From the resulting hardships, the affected nations that import agricultural products and have ambitions and (financial) means draw a practical conclusion: the nation has ceded one of its basic requirements, namely access to the fundamental means to feed its population, to the calculations of foreign powers, and has thus made itself into their dependent variable. The nation, with all its needs and growth aspirations, cannot live with such detrimental dependence on the international markets in the long term. This state of things has to change.
The governments of these states thus see themselves faced with a challenge, for they are the ones responsible for securing the practical goods — the use-values — that the nation needs, and for having them used profitably in business. Their distrust of the world market’s achievements brings with it their desire to correct things.
The solution they envisage to the problem they diagnose does not consist in primarily or solely focusing on the mobilization of local resources, on expanding the agrarian sector and raising its productivity, i.e., implementing a national program for self-sufficiency. This is because all land-grabbing states have one thing in common: whatever their natural conditions are, and whatever politico-economic decisions have been taken, they all lack the conditions and the means to permanently guarantee a stable food supply to their people by cultivating their own territory. And they certainly lack — for the time being and for the foreseeable future — the capacity to produce an agricultural surplus that would enable them to open up extensive business opportunities on the world markets, and which could be used to turn their agricultural sector — a rather precarious capitalistic sector due to its dependency on nature — into a source of national wealth. But as a result of their — partially successful, at least —”integration into the global markets,” they have money and credit, which are the means inherent to this system to ensure agrarian production — by acquiring and utilizing foreign production conditions. “Outsourcing” is what experts on globalization call this method of agro-imperialism, thereby revealing how absolutely normal they find this type of instrumentalizing of foreign states and their inventory for one’s own state’s national economy.
The political mission, however, that the exterritorialized agricultural departments have to carry out differs according to the countries’ different economic capacities and their political status, for these determine the scope of the ambitions that the political leaders consider to be ‘realistic.’
— There are the desert states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Libya, also called oil countries because of their coveted underground resources. They suffer from natural conditions that are hostile to agriculture, and the fight against these conditions becomes more and more expensive in view of increasing water scarcity. Their main concern is: the outsourcing of grain production should and must secure a “national food reserve.”
— On the other hand, there are (formerly) emerging countries such as China, South Korea, and India. They suffer partly from the narrowness of their territory (i.e., too little arable land, as in South Korea), but mainly (this being especially true for the ‘giant empires’ China and India) from successfully having accumulated industrial capital at the expense of agricultural development, and from ruthlessly shaping the country in pursuit of this strategic priority. They suffer from the negative effects that the pursuit of the capitalistic slogan “Get rich!” has on their natural conditions: soil degradation, air and water contamination, and increasingly disastrous weather extremes as a result of the capitalistically induced global climate changes. The People’s Republic of China, for instance, has calculated that it will soon no longer be able to feed its growing population. Like the other rising powers, China, besides its programs already launched to capitalize its agriculture and stimulate productivity in farming and cattle breeding at home, is now pushing ahead with acquiring sometimes gigantic foreign agricultural land areas, following a dual imperative: the national food reserve must be permanently secured, and globally competitive agribusinesses that operate under its sovereign command have to be set up and promoted. Following the successful Western nations’ model, these businesses will under all circumstances have to secure the domestic food supply in the long run, make a contribution to the supply of alternative energy, and quite generally become a source of growth for the nation. Countries such as China and India intend nothing less than rising to the ranks of the powers that rule the world markets, competing with Western agro-oligopolies as agricultural global players — being able to do business as a world power is imperative in this sector, too!
3. Acquiring land through purchase meets with exceptionally favorable conditions. There is no shortage of political sellers of large swathes of their national terrain. This, too, is a result of the glorious world market.
The national political will on the demand side, of those who have money to buy foreign land, has its equivalent in a corresponding willingness on the supply side, of those sovereigns who own the objects of desire. This willingness, too, is a product of the selection that global capitalism brings about in the world of states. It can generally be found on the side of the losers of world-market competition, in Africa and Asia, who are not themselves capable of profitably using the fertile soil they own or making it usable. According to the criteria of the FAO, the food and agriculture organization of the UN, only 14% of the “usable farmland is in fact used.” The Black Continent, therefore, seems just predestined to sell off its excessive land.
The state land-sellers try to market their political ownership of land. For most of them, this is one of the few sources of real money, i.e., foreign currency. They, too, thus profit from the principle that in capitalism sheer land as a condition of production and living gets a monetary value if there is a buyer or a tenant. They are states that are firmly integrated into the one, free, global economic order but they lack the all-decisive stuff: capital — and thus self-generating growth — so they offer to the outsourcing countries their “unused” land along with free access to water, the precious commodity without which intensive cultivation is impossible. This does not mean, of course, that this land together with its wells had up till then been useless; after all, parts of the native population are living on and from it, which means it is their only means of living. But “unused” means that the land is not cultivated profitably, does not yield wealth in money terms. The aforementioned states cede their right of use over their sovereign territory to foreign states and companies in order to have it thus capitalized. Hence, even the miserable losers of the world market can make themselves useful for the winners. They can consider this service as an opportunity, if not their only one, for which they are at least recompensed with a ground rent. And they can still, or once again, hope for the beneficial effects from investments that foreign agro-funds bring into the country before they take the goods wrought from nature out of the country. If the vehicles transporting the crops out of the country then actually encounter UN convoys transporting in food aid, as the FAO — according to its diplomatic announcements vis-à-vis the many people starving — “fears,” this is generally accepted. After all, this is the purpose for which the world-encompassing UN food aid has been established: to provide people who are unproductive and redundant with alms so that the business with those who are productively exploited can continue its course undisturbed. In return, the state that offers land can occasionally expect some national “development aid,” with which the political arm that paves the way for the agro-investors provides the necessary environment so that the capital export pays off in the long term.
Hoping to receive capital aid in exchange, the land owners offer special terms to encourage the purchase and sale of their fertile soil. This is not a “betrayal of the people,” as a critical commentator writes (ZEIT, Germany, March 11, 2010), who like all experts thinks that these gentlemen should stand the test of the world market if ever they and their people want to hit the big time. This is exactly what the Third World governments are trying to achieve as best they can. This is why they compete with their peers to win contracts from political and private investors with capital and credit, for which purpose they don’t forget to minimize the price for which they sell their (most) fertile fields. The unproductive population, inhabiting the sold plots of land and living off it, is sacrificed for that purpose — along with the “environment” that has remained “clean” because it has not yet been put to capitalist use. Is there a better way for the country to create profitable jobs and an infrastructure for business?
What we have here is a bargain of the most modern capitalistic sort — gaining access to remote lands by buying into them. Thus, criticizing this as “neocolonialism” is, in fact, not founded, as astute observers are noticing themselves:
This time, the Africans deliberately join in the great game of monopoly, or, more precisely, the continent’s ruling elites do.” (Zeit, March 11, 2010)
This is nicer than the times of forceful control and colonial occupation. In those days, the East-Indian and Southwest-African trading companies or Latin-American fruit companies had to bring their own militia, or request regular troops from their European and North American home countries to implant their settlers and cultivate their “cash crops” in remote lands. Today, emancipated and legally independent national sovereigns voluntarily put their country and their people — as far as the hoped-for demand for them exists — at the disposal of interested foreign parties that want to make use of them. And they themselves even take care of the expenses of their rule and the security of the peaceful investors. As best they can. Still, rebellions that thwart a planned deal — as happened in Madagascar or in the Philippines, where South Korea and China, respectively, had to put their projects on the back burner — are a nuisance.
What the states that offer their land get in return, especially if powerful states such as China or South Korea are involved with great plans in mind, corresponds to the aim of the transaction. The state buyers of land implant their interest into the state concerned. They seek to use their authority to permanently dispose over these estates, and to secure the economic success of their satellites. In public-private partnerships of varying proportions, they set up the necessary infrastructure, whether on credit or as a gift. Along with modern technology for agriculture and infrastructure and building materials, they often also bring their own proletarians and farmers, of whom countries such as China and India certainly have more than enough. In return, they may even occasionally decide not to export part of the corn or rice harvest provided that the local purchasing power can be skimmed off profitably — i.e., at world market prices that can be obtained elsewhere. This is then called “localization” of successful investments, joyfully welcomed by the UN and styled as an exemplar of a “win-win situation.” Based on the right of use they purchased, and the ‘development’ they stimulated, the outsourcing nations then get influence over how the local political power is used, and consequently start off — on whatever level — the dialectic of political economy and imperialistic interference inherent to the system. They don’t object to the use of local force when the smooth execution of business is impeded by local paupers or by a political competitor; they even occasionally take care of expanding and “modernizing” it. The new great powers in particular, China and India, use their land purchases to enter into business relations with the local political rulers, or to contribute toward improving them. They do this not only in order to tap into an expanded range of strategic resources and other sources of wealth, but also in order to turn the dependencies that they have created into levers for political interference and, ideally, for the permanent strategic alignment of the local state power, i.e., preferably into an exclusive sphere of influence. Thus, land purchases, in particular for an aspiring China, have become convenient opportunities and stages within the framework of a comprehensive imperialistic world-market and world-power offensive. The Chinese ironically call it a “harmonious world plan,” invoking the Marshall plan for postwar Europe. The financial power of the new export champion, mostly in the form of dollar surpluses, thus finds an investment both financially and politically profitable.
4. As political activists that are not satisfied with the existing division of the international sources of wealth and power and that call for a change in the balance of power, the leading “land grabbers” are viewed suspiciously by the established world powers.
From Washington, Brussels, and Tokyo, the state buyers of farmland are blamed for lacking due “transparency” in their deals, a diplomatic expression for disapproval. They are criticized for circumventing market rules or using them in a politically questionable way, if not ignoring them. And a warning is issued: they should pay due respect to the sovereignty and rights of foreign states and peoples instead of making large swathes of these countries’ territory their own property through purchase. A “code of conduct” that everyone should adhere to is promoted by agricultural and development experts from governments in America, Europe, and Japan, which have long since converted their colonial past into morally irrefutable global conditions of use. This code is meant to sustain the “principle of good governance” that they took such great efforts to introduce, a principle that obliges the less well-off sovereigns to make “responsible” use — i.e., the one requested by America and Europe — of the power conceded to them.
In terms of the matter at hand, the assertion of the traditional global-economic nations that the normal practices of international trade and interstate dealings were somehow violated is absurd. No breach of rules is observed, neither of the procedural rules that they have imposed on the entire world of states, nor of the prevailing customs in diplomacy and development policies. What is being used are the power of access that money provides and international negotiations — the peaceful weapons of competition. And indeed, the main Western powers of moneymaking across all borders have no problem at all committing themselves to all relevant methods of ‘land acquisition’ — to the buyout of land under foreign sovereignty, to the tacit coercion of those nations that have lost out in competition to make them agree to “sell out” their natural resources, to the translation of their hardships into extortionate offers:
— When their agricultural and trading corporations as well as their investment funds purchase sizable chunks of farmland in the wake of the ‘hunger crisis,’ turning them into a lucrative success, this is a fair deal as it takes place in accordance with their national (development) policy that prefers ‘market integration’ to ‘aid.’ Such commitment on the part of the private sector is considered the modern form of agricultural cooperation for mutual benefit.
— When the financial sector — empowered, overseen, and used by them — starts, among other things, to increasingly invest in and market agricultural resources and the unavoidably required land while their towers of assets are collapsing, then this stands for a welcome shift towards the “real economy” and thus for greater soundness in the credit business.
—When our Western governments, in their capacity as political organizers of their national market economies, have always matter-of-factly disposed over foreign resources and harvests, this has always been because the state is responsible for the growth of the economy and for feeding the people. The same is true in particular for current projects for the future, for which the acquisition of vast foreign territories is being undertaken and the local sovereigns made happy with adequate propositions. Desertec (“…a global renewable energy solution based on harnessing sustainable power from the sites where renewable sources of energy are at their most abundant [and which is] made up of scientists, experts and companies from across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa”) is meant to become the German-European project of the century! Extensive deployment of solar technology in the sunny climes of the African deserts is designed to provide a substantial contribution to a permanent energy supply — along with lucrative business prospects for the European electricity groups and other conglomerates, of course. For this project, all the North African states have been assigned their roles. For our democratic statesmen, this is not only ethically unobjectionable and nothing less than a large economic and job-creating program for all the states that lack capital, but it is also absolutely essential in the name of progress in climate and energy policy, i.e., in the name of mankind. Moreover, the abovementioned dialectic of imperialism applies here, too: the appropriation of the deserts for European energy needs is declared to be a step toward a political and strategic subordination of the Northern African neighbors, i.e., of the “arc of crisis” there. In diplomatic parlance: “Europe and Africa can grow closer together.” This has to be achieved not only because of America’s notorious claims for supremacy over the Mare Nostrum, our Mediterranean, but also in the face of the “growing dominance” of the People’s Republic of China across Africa. What business does this nation have there — not even a former colonial power! But China has now managed to become the number one investor on the continent, thanks to its steadily rising capital export and all the classic methods of development aid that our Third World experts consider unnecessary if not obsolete.
It is no contradiction if European governments are sympathetic toward the activities of money owners who want to invest their money in profitable objects in agribusiness everywhere, and if these governments pursue their own grand political designs, such as Desertec — and at the same time protest against the activities of other sovereigns. This is not a sign of double moral standards, as critical friends of the Third World would have it. The point is a completely different one. Our traditional guardians and beneficiaries of the world economy simply find it quite normal if they make it clear to the rest of the states how their free, global economic order was and is meant: that the freedom of access to all the sources of wealth is meant for them and their benefit, and of course it involves barriers — for others — if the result of “international competition” does not work out to their satisfaction.
The traditional rulers of the world market regard the successful emerging powers’ “land grabbing” firstly as an attack on their own economic power: an impairment of the free access to the financial sources of the entire world that they claim for their interests. They want their agribusinesses and investment funds to make large capital gains from new starvelings and from a growing demand for plant-based raw materials. Therefore, it cannot be tolerated when the Chinese and others serve their national markets themselves and occupy ‘our’ terrain for the supply of the world market.
Secondly, and above all, when the masters of the world market detect a violation of the “principles of good governance” decreed by them, they suspect illegal intentions against their (world) order. Their public opinion leaders back them up by giving all this a moral sense for the public, warning that the impoverished populace would be driven away from their remaining food sources, land and water. When US and other Western custodians of order complain that “land grabbing” also buys up a piece of sovereignty from independent states along with each piece of territory, then they are worried that the African and Asian sovereigns in question come under the wrong political influence and are thus deprived of the right one. Consequently, it is the business that China does with dictatorships outlawed by the West (such as Sudan or Myanmar) that serves as evidence of choice for the suspicion of unfair dealings. There is a fundamental verdict in their criticism that bad governments were recognized, supported, fostered, or even bought, which undermines the necessary exclusion of, and sanctions against, dissenting sovereigns. The initiatives of rivals from emerging nations constitute an attack on the established imperialistic responsibilities and thus on the imperialists’ responsibility for global supervision.
In conclusion: the acquisition of economically dependent and strategically useful sovereigns done without authorization, i.e., on a state’s own account and for its own extension of power, contravenes the purpose of the free, world-market economic order. This was created by and for America and its allies and encompasses a world order of force. The exploitation of free access to economic resources, without accepting the hierarchy of powers and even unsettling it, is an attack on this order. This is the core of the criticism that the old supreme powers direct against their new rivals.
No wonder, therefore, that the US put the subject on the G8 agenda two years ago. But no wonder, either, that an agreement was to be had there only on the official version that “we agree” to “design and implement an effective food security strategy,” “whose core principles are country ownership and effectiveness” (G8 Summit Statement, L’Aquila, July 10, 2009). General restrictions were not agreed upon. As hostile brothers[*] and rivals, the Americans, Europeans, and Japanese, after all, want to have their liberty of access to foreign territorial resources restricted no more than the Chinese do. Accordingly, the World Bank is currently promoting further “liberalization” of the agrarian cultivation of Third World countries, which is targeted against all existing laws and restrictions that limit land purchases and the free export of harvests. This does not prevent the International Monetary Fund, still dominated by the West, from getting active in the name of the US and Europe when it comes to reining in the Chinese liberty of access: for instance, the IMF threatens Congo with sanctions if it doesn’t revoke a treaty with the People’s Republic of China that has leased 2.8 million hectares of land for the production of palm oil / biofuel. The Western imperialists’ standpoint of global supervision is as unwavering as ever. A different question is to what extent their decrees and prohibitions will be effective.
* “Hostile brothers” refers to a German legend of medieval hostility between brothers occupying neighboring castles. Marx also refers to capitalists as “hostile brothers” (Capital Volume 3, Chapter 15) — translator.
1 Compare: “Old Hunger, New Hunger,” in GegenStandpunkt 2-08.
2 The same “logic of the market” is at work in the face of natural disasters — floods, droughts, blasts — which are increasing on the whole and currently destroy great parts of the grain harvest. Agro-capitalists, to the extent that they are not afflicted themselves, make a virtue out of this necessity: they take the reduction in supply that takes place in this way as an opportunity to make extra profits. Then institutions like the World Bank can again “warn of a food crisis,” “like the one that took place in 2008” and note the exploding prices on the commodity exchanges as a bad omen. (Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Munich, August 11, 2010)
3 The huge People’s Republic of China loses one percent of its arable land as a result of these effects every year. Altogether, this constitutes nothing but illustrative material for the extent to which national and global capitalist progress necessarily undermines the society’s living conditions and thereby its own prerequisites. “24% of global farmland is already destroyed or has turned into deserts. Four billion hectares of land are threatened by erosion — one third of the earth’s land area.” (SZ, July 22, 2009) The nice thing about it in this system of ours is: this destruction by the global money-growth machinery is in turn expedient for the business of those who even more aggressively sell their command over the still unruined part of the land, whose extent is limited by nature; it is bad, however, for nations that are totally dependent on foreign business.
4 Countries such as China and India, of course, go out of their way to increase the yields from their agriculture, and to build up their own agricultural stocks: “The third largest item ($585 million) in China’s economic development plan is expenses for the rural infrastructure.” (LHS Aktuell, “The Third Wave of Outsourcing,” Laurens Spethman Holding newsletter, 2010)
5 The same is true for “transition countries” such as Russia or Ukraine, which took along a great deal of fertile agricultural land when changing from the wrong system, the planned economy, to the right system, the capitalist economy, but which lack the capital to make profitable use of the land — the dominant economic objective since the system change. This is why they sold some parts of former collective farmland to financially powerful multinational Western agribusinesses after this change.
6 In so doing, African governments don’t normally encounter the self-defined limitations of private property, as the majority of land is not subject to anybody’s exclusive right, the local natives do not figure as legal persons that compete for property in the form of money, and land registry offices do not exist. What exists is at best barely “established rights” of local inhabitants that eke out a living from the soil.
7 Among these are water rights, tax exemptions, provision of logistical and administrative support, guarantees of protection against possible sabotage and against revolting parts of the population, licenses to export the crops and to transfer the profits, etc.
8 The friends of Africa keep book of the global cost-benefit ratios and accordingly present their findings: nowhere is fertile soil to be had cheaper than in Africa. They accurately present statistical figures that result from a practical comparison that capital investors do when calculating with every spot on earth. For instance: “Africa today is the preferred target of these transactions. African soil, even in populated areas, is six times cheaper than, say, territories in Brazil, Argentina, or Poland, and eight times cheaper than in the US, not to speak of the prices of agricultural land in England or Germany, which is 18 to 20 times more expensive.” (Africa Bulletin 2-3, 2010)
9 This happened in Mozambique, where China brought along “human capital” in the form of 10,000 farm workers. By now, a total of one million Chinese laborers are reported to be working in Africa.
10 Mozambique, for instance, does not only see a massive influx of Chinese workers but also of $3 billion in military aid.
11 This becomes evident even when bourgeois experts attempt to seek and find out what is historically and factually “special” and “new” in the current wave of land grabbing. What they discover is, firstly, that the crops that are grown there have a different use-value: “cash crops” (bananas, coffee, nuts, etc.) on traditional plantations are now being replaced by grain, basic food materials and “sources” of alternative energy; secondly, the enormous size of the areas purchased today, which are needed for these crops; thirdly, the active role that state actors play when foreign farmland is developed, which — in the stormy history of the Western world — is not pretended to be anything “new,” rather pursued much more violently at the beginning but of less importance in recent history (Cf. “The Third Wave of Outsourcing”, op. cit.). What the experts have not struck upon, in any case, is a new quality in the politico-economic subject matter, an innovation in matters of imperialist claims. All the historical as well as the modern forms of ‘land taking’ are nothing but proof of the expansive nature of the capitalist mode of production, and of the principle that business and force always go hand in hand; and that to the extent the question of power has been resolved, force is less visibly applied. How could it be otherwise in international dealings, where political barriers and governments that are more or less sovereign stand in the way of any claim on foreign sources of wealth. These “analyses” even imply that the point of modern “land grabbing” is not any ‘deviant behavior’ but a practical defiance of the globally established order of command and rights of usage, by subjects that act solely on their own authority: when pleading for “efficient control mechanisms against the abuses of the rules,” the analysts certainly approve of these as long as they are used on behalf of fatherlands that act responsibly — such as Germany.
12 A German newspaper mints this in nice words: “While in Asia and in the Arab world it is often the governments that are behind such land grabbing, the West rather tends to leave this business in the hands of the private sector.” The writer of this article then goes on to admonish those same Western politicians to exercise more political control so that speculators do not push things so far as to jeopardize the means of survival of entire peoples and even possibly undermine order and peace out of sheer “greed.” (SZ, “Agro-imperialism”, July 22, 2009)
13 So that news like this can increasingly be found: “Banks are now advertising agricultural funds with the hunger crisis, investment bankers recommend investing in the ‘only producer of agricultural products’ — in land” (Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 9/09, Berlin, p. 107). This is in line with the cheerful slogan: “More people, more hunger, and just one Earth!” (ZEIT, Feb 11, 2010). From this arises — unnecessary to explain how — the most important thing, namely, the profit!
14 “The known contracts rarely contain a provision that the food requirements of the ‘host country’ should be taken into consideration. Laws of several countries that prohibit food exports at times of domestic scarcity have in some cases even been suspended. The World Bank is currently taking special care of ‘adjusting’ the laws of African countries that put obstacles in the way of the purchase or the lease [of farmland], and of free exports [of crops] (Africa Bulletin 2-3, 2010)
© GegenStandpunkt 2012