The empty lands of Africa

Land grabs and squatters

In 2009 alone nearly 60 million hectares – an area the size of France – was purchased or leased in these land grabs. Most of these deals are characterized by a lack of transparency, despite the profound implications posed by the consolidation of control over global food markets and agricultural resources by financial firms.

“We have seen cases of speculators taking over agricultural land while small farmers, viewed as “squatters” are forcibly removed with no compensation,” said Frederic Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute.

‘Hedge Funds Create Volatility in Global Food Supply with Land Grabs Across Africa’, the Oakland Institute

The “underutilized” commons

The lands of small-scale farmers like these are characterized as ‘under-used’. Since the state – which legally owns all territory – declared it had seven million hectares going spare, investors have snapped up 2.5 million. Mozambique has stayed in the ‘top 10 most targeted’ countries for large-scale deals ever since.

The age-old tussle over resources is nothing new. But the speed at which large swathes of the Global South are being transferred into private hands has not been seen since colonial times.

The cast has changed. Modern day landgrabbers are a varied bunch: the Saudis want to raise poultry and grow grains in Sudan; forests in the Philippines are disappearing under Asia’s insatiable appetite for palm oil; the finance hubs of London and New York have bought into El Tejar, which farms 800,000 hectares in South America. Companies from rapidly growing India and South Africa are at the fore, alongside Western firms.

While agricultural deals are happening all over the world from South Asia to Latin America, the most powerful ‘empty land myth’ centres on Africa.

‘The smallholders’ last stand’, New Internationalist

So-called underutilized lands are the “commons” from which rural and peri-urban peasants collect and manage medicinal plants, fuel, as well as fish, game, uncultivated vegetables, nuts, fruit, and fungi. The “hidden harvest” not only provides irreplaceable nutrients in their diet, it is also essential for food security. Collection of “wild” and uncultivated materials takes place throughout the year but can become critical for survival in the weeks or months leading up to harvest when family food stocks are lowest. In some areas of Africa, wild resources cover up to 80% of household food needs during staple crop shortages. Even when the annual proportion of the hidden harvest seems low, its availability can mean the difference between life and death. Turning the commons into a global link in the industrial food or fuel chain could massively increase food insecurity.

ETC Group: “Who will feed us?”

In order to administer and govern, states engage in simplification process to render complex social processes legible to the state. The creation of cadastres, land records and titles are attempts at simplifying land-based social relations that are otherwise too complex for state administration (Scott 1998). This requires state’s official powers at recording land relations and (re)classifying lands. This in turn brings us back to the notion of ‘available marginal, empty lands’. The trend in state discourse around land grabs seem to be: if the land is not formally privatized, then it is state-owned; if official census did not show significant formal settlements then these are empty lands, if the same official census did not show significant farm production activities, then these are un-used lands.

‘Competing political tendencies in global governance of land grabbing’, Saturnino M. Borras Jr., Jennifer Franco and Chunyu Wang December 2012 (PDF)

Usufructuary rights vs property rights

In tribal cultures, usufruct means the land is owned in common by the tribe, but families and individuals have the right to use certain plots of land. Most Indian tribes owned things like land as a group, and not as individuals. The family never owned the land, they just farmed it. This is called usufruct land ownership. A person must make (more or less) continuous use of the item, or else he loses ownership rights. This is usually referred to as “possession property” or “usufruct”. Thus, in this usufruct system, absentee ownership is illegitimate.

The oldest examples of usufruct are found in the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses directed property owners not to harvest the edges of their fields, and reserved the gleanings for the poor.

Wikipedia: Usufruct

In the rural areas, the effects on the peasants were the gradual erosion of usufruct rights (nistar rights) of access, of food, fuel, and livestock grazing from the community’s common lands. The marginalisation of peasant communities’ rights over their forests, sacred groves and ‘wastelands’ has been the prime cause of their impoverishment.

According to an ancient Indian text, the Ishopanishad:

‘A selfish man over utilising the resources of nature to satisfy his own ever increasing needs is nothing but a thief because using resources beyond one’s needs would result in the utilisation of resources over which others have a right.’

This relationship between restraint in resource use and social justice was also the core element of Mahatma Gandhi’s political philosophy. In his view:

‘The earth provides enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.’

Vandana Shiva, ‘The enclosure of the commons’