Henk Hobbelink

on .

(GRAIN, co-founder and coordinator;  http://www.grain.org/)

In the last few years “Fertile Lands” in poor countries have attracted a huge amount of investments from rich countries and corporations for different reasons: feeding rich populations, producing biofuels, simply making profits. These investments are often made in a non-transparent way, and at the expenses of local communities’ rights and wellness. This phenomenon is known as “Land Grabbing” and was first disclosed by “GRAIN”, a non-profit organization that supports the activities of local farmers around the world. Despite the great efforts of GRAIN in revealing and monitoring “Land Grabbing”, the phenomenon is not yet well-known, and hasn’t received enough attention by the international media broadcasting. However, Land Grabbing does exist and very often badly damages the rights of local communities. But what does exactly mean “Land Grabbing”? When did it start? When a foreign investment can be properly classified as Land Grabbing? What are the consequences for local communities and how are they reacting? Is a foreign investment real beneficial for them? What are the possible future scenarios for Land Grabbing? Henk Hobbelink, co-founder of GRAIN, answered to these and other questions.
Henk Hobbelink: Henk is an agronomist by training. In the 1980s he worked with farmers in Peru on sustainable pest management and after that he worked with Dutch and European NGOs drawing attention to the importance of agricultural biodiversity for the future of farming. In 1990, he co-founded GRAIN, and over the past two decades has helped the organization grow into an international collective that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. Henk is the coordinator of GRAIN, and as such is responsible for the overall functioning of the organization as well as conducting research, writing and outreach activities.
GRAIN: GRAIN is a small international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. GRAIN’ support takes the form of independent research and analysis, networking at the local, regional and international levels, and active cooperation and alliance-building with social movements. For more than 20 years, GRAIN has been an active player in the global movement to challenge corporate power over people’s food and livelihoods.

INTERVIEW - (May 2014)
The interview was realized in May 2014 and published in July 2014 - (Original interview in English)
Subject: Land Grabbing - Origin, actors and effects on local communities, Oil Palm Plantations in Central Africa 

Question 1: You are the co-founder of GRAIN. Can you explain what is GRAIN’s mission, what are the topics it is currently more focusing on, and, finally, in which way it carries out its mission?

GRAIN was founded about 20 years ago in response to some negative events which were badly affecting the shape of the global food system: 20 years back, some large corporations started their campaign to take control over the world seed supply; but, more importantly, as small farmers were losing centrality in the food system and transnational industries were gaining power, the sustainability of the global food supply (especially in terms of biodiversity, local nutrition and land fertility) was seriously at risk.  Said that, currently, GRAIN is focusing on four main issues. The first one is to look at the role (and the impact) of multinational corporations in the food supply. The second one is to monitor (and face) the phenomena of “Land Grabbing”. Another issue concerns “seed diversity”; it is very important for peasant farmers and the world food supply, but now seed diversity is disappearing and progressively controlled by a handful of multinationals; GRAIN strongly supports groups which fight against the privatization of seed production and, at the same time, proposes alternative sustainable system for the seed market. Finally, the fourth area GRAIN is working on is the link between the food system and climate change: the food system has become the major contributor to the climate crisis; GRAIN’s researchers calculated that between 44% and 57% of all the greenhouse emissions come from the food system today; this is because it makes an intensive use of chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) and is responsible for most of the deforestation; but a great chunk of emissions comes also from a massive use of Transportation: in the international food system that has been created, the food must be transported and frozen, causing more pollution and CO2 emissions.
GRAIN is a very small (10 people) and decentralized organization: most of its people and collaborators live and work in different countries around the globe (Africa, Asia, America and Europe) and closely collaborate with local social organizations. In that sense GRAIN is a “networking organization”. In practical terms, GRAIN pursues its goals in two way: the first one is by publishing a lot of researches and articles; the second one is by closely collaborating with local social organizations and farmers (in their legal fights against big corporations) in order to build the effective capacity needed to better and really realize the “change” in the way the agricultural system works.

Question 2
: Now, we are going to talk about “Land Grabbing”. In 2008 GRAIN was the first organization which raised the alarm of Land Grabbing (see the Report). Could you explain what does exactly mean “Land Grabbing”, why are rich countries and big corporations so interested in fertile lands and what are the main positive (if there are) and negative effects of this practice?

Well, in 2008 there were two important events that triggered the race to Land Grabbing: the food crisis and the financial crisis. With regards to the food crisis, in 2008 food prices everywhere around the world were on the rise and a number of countries, which rely prevalently on imports to feed their population (e.g., The Gulf countries and China), were severely affected by the increase in the prices of food. So, these countries decided to buy fertile lands abroad (especially in Africa) in order to directly grow food for their own market, instead of going on with importing food abroad (a strategy suggested for many decades by the World Bank). As for the financial crisis, with the collapse of the housing market, big financial companies and investment houses started to look for  a “safe haven” where they could invest and easily make a lot of money. They found it in the “farmland”: in fact, with the exacerbation of climate change,  farmland is becoming increasingly scarcer, as well as, a strategic asset for companies; in other words, its value is destined to grow up. With regards the implications of Land Grabbing, we do not find any positive effects. On the negative side, instead, there are a lot of implications. Where Land Grabbing happens, local communities are removed from their lands and local farmers lose the land to produce their food. All that brings to: less livability and security of the places affected, an abuse of the local communities’ human rights, a reduced capacity in producing food and feeding local populations, miserable labor rights (for the people that works for the big corporations) and so on.

Question 3
: When a foreign investment could be considered as Land Grabbing? And what are the main actors involved in the process?

Land Grabbing is not a new phenomenon. It goes on since the times of colonization. What is new are the actors involved (big corporations and investment houses) and the geopolitical consequences of Land Grabbing. The worst (and most diffused) form of Land Grabbing is when a foreign investment is conducted in a non-transparent way and without any process of consultation and discussion with local communities about their future and the future of their land. However, also an investment that is based on a transparent agreement between the corporation and the host government should be considered as a Land Grabbing investment. In fact, also in this case local people and farmers are removed from their land with all the negative consequences in terms of housing, nutrition, work and, more in general, human rights. Such investments bring richness to corporations while local people are dispossessed of their home.

Question 4
: GRAIN is working very hard on the matter of Land Grabbing through the publication of several and highly detailed articles and the building up of a dedicated website (http://farmlandgrab.org/). Could you give us the main data on the size of the phenomena and what are the countries mainly involved in the practice (both investor and target countries)?

Well, it is very difficult to give the exact measure of Land Grabbing. Over the past few years the World Bank has come out with reports putting the size of the phenomena between 50 and 80 million hectares of farmland bought in the last half-decade. Others put this figure much higher. Just to give you an idea, according to the majority of the estimates, the amount of land grabbed is close to half the amount of all European farmlands. Most of that land belongs to poor countries in Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique etc.. But Lang Grabbing is also taking place in some Latin American countries (such as Argentina and Brazil) and in Asia. As regards to the investors, Land Grabbing is a very mixed phenomena:  we find countries like the Gulf States and China, as well as, big investment companies coming from either London, Chicago, New York or India, Brazil and Malaysia.

Question 5
: The content of production in the land acquired by big corporations can differ widely. From food to exports, or bio-fuels, which do you think is the most common object of Land Grabbing?

What is important for big corporations is to make money, regardless the object of their investment. So the land can be used to produce food, for exports, for agro-fuels or even to use it as a way to get carbon credits; it doesn’t matter; the important thing is to make profits. An example is given by the Indian company “Karuturi”, specialized in the business of flowers: it produces flowers in India as well as in Kenya, but it has also decided to include food in its assets and, for this purpose, it has got a huge amount of land from the Ethiopian government; this food is used for export market! As for agro-fuels, we are registering a large expansion of Oil-Palm plantations around the world as it is very cheap to produce and can be used for making biofuels. However, also part of flower or sugar-cane plantations are used to produce ethanol.

Question 6
: In 2012, GRAIN published an interesting Report that connects the thematic of Land grabbing with the increasing power of big corporations’ in the agro-business and recent economics trend: Who will feed China: Agribusiness or its own farmers? Decisions in Beijing echo around the world. China and India are the countries (among the so called “emerging” ones) with the biggest population. Could, in your opinion, the evolution these two countries are registering (towards a more industrialized economy) further exacerbate the phenomena of “Land Grabbing”? And how should this problem be tackled?

Firstly, it is important to recognize that China and India are not only the countries with the biggest populations in the world, but also the ones with the biggest number of farmers (about half of the global number) and, in particular, of small farmers. Said that, the article mentioned in the question raises the following point: China is progressively building an industrial food system, but that damages severely small farmers; China is increasingly importing soybean from Latin America and maize from the United States to feed its growing animal industry. In that way, small farmers in China are facing a strong competition from the cheap components coming from abroad. As a result, they are becoming less profitable and are losing lands.

So what’s the solution to this problem?
For us the solution is simple: it comes from what the international farmers organization “Via Campesina” calls as “Food Sovereignty”. It is an agricultural policy (to apply at both the countries and international levels) which helps small farmers in producing food and gaining access to the land; Food Sovereignty prioritizes local farmers instead of international markets and ecological agriculture instead of industrial agriculture. Only in this way we can produce the food necessary to feed the growing global population.

Question 7
: GRAIN has recently published a series of interviews (with local communities) about resistance to the expansion of industrial oil palm plantations in West and Central Africa. Could you sum up the results coming out from this initiative? In particular, what are the countries and the companies mainly involved and the state of art in each country?

Oil Palm plantations are causing a lot of mobilization from local communities in Central Africa. In the past decades, Oil Palm was traditionally produced in two countries: Indonesia and Malaysia; in those countries it has been used as an alternative to vegetable oils. However, in the last 5 or 10 years, in the context of Land Grabbing, Oil Palm plantations have been expanded rapidly in Latin America and in Africa. As a result, now there are a lot of local communities, especially in Cameroon, Liberia, Sierra Leone and other Central African countries which are struggling for their land. Basically, GRAIN is meeting with social organizations in order to interchange experiences and help local communities struggle against Oil Palm plantations. An example of success in this kind of mobilization comes from Cameroon: a U.S. company, Herakles was going to start Oil Palm plantations in an area of about 20 thousand hectares; but thanks to the local, national and international mobilization, the project was stopped.

Question 8
: With reference to West and Central Africa, big corporations, their lobbies, international organizations and Land Grabbing supporters, say that foreign investments in these countries bring economic development and occupation. Is that true? Apart from local communities rights, are this investments really beneficial in terms of economic development?

In our experience no! It is true, when these companies take control of farmland in poor countries, they bring machineries, new skills and employ some people. But the evidence suggests that the amount of people employed is much less than the amount of people that used to live and work there before the investment: the net result is a loss of employment. Besides, part of this new employees come from abroad, in order to do skilled jobs that local people are unable to do. Finally, the unskilled local employees, very often, get wages below the minimum levels: we have seen in many countries, in particular in Ethiopia and in Sudan, that people are paid less than 60-80 cent per day (less than 1 dollar, that is the threshold established by the World Bonk to define the line of poverty in the world). Summing up, Land Grabbing reduces local employment and, the people employed fall in miserable labor conditions. In our thinking, this is not development; it is anti-development. The only way to bring a real agricultural development in these countries is to redistribute land to small farmers instead of doing the opposite as it is happening now with Land Grabbing.

Question 9
: But, are foreign investment in agriculture more productive than local small farmers?

Most people think that big industrial farms are more efficient and productive than small farms. It is a big misunderstanding! In academic, scientists have found a result known as “the productivity paradox”: they have observed that small farms are much more productive (in terms of what they produce from the same amount of land) than big corporate farms. The reason is simple. It is clear that a family with a little land at disposal, will use it in the best efficient way and without leaving any room unused; they produce a diversity of food and, at the same time, preserve the landscape, the fertility and productivity of their land. On the other hand, big corporations are only interested in the return on their investment. In order to achieve that goal, they try to keep the cost of production at minimum levels (so paying less wages to labors) and export almost the totality of the food they produce. In such a way, local people lose access to local food and their nutrition worsens. That is no the solution to stop hungry, food crisis and famine around the world!

Question 10
: In November 2013 GRAIN, together with other organizations, signed The Calabar Declaration, an agreement against the business of Oil Palm in poor countries. Could you give us more details about the intentions, the contents and the practical effects of this agreement on the specific thematic of Land Grabbing?

The agreement was drafted in order to articulate a new level of cooperation between the organizations and local communities involved in the battle against Land Grabbing, specifically against the expansion of the Oil Palm sector in Africa. Practically, the agreement supports the cooperation, coordination and exchange of experiences between organizations settled in different countries of Africa. In the Calabar Declaration it is described how these organizations see the problem, what solutions they propose and what they are going to do about it. Finally, the signing organizations have promised their commitment to work together in order to mobilize supports at an international level and better coordinate all the actors involved in the struggle against Land Grabbing in Africa.

Question 11
: Summing up the finding of our discussion: 1) Land Grabbing is mainly driven by the need of better manage nutrition and energy needs in developed and emerging countries; 2) Land Grabbing is a tool for big corporations for increasing their profits; 3) on the other hand, big corporations and international organization strongly consider foreign investment as a way to bring economic development in poor countries; 4) behind Land Grabbing there are agreements made in a non-transparent way and that often don’t take into accounts rights and interests of local communities. Now the world is going to face a big challenge: how to feed a growing population. Is Land Grabbing the right solution to that problem? If not, what do you propose about?

Let me focus on the first point you have just mentioned. In our opinion, the way of how the industrial food system is expanding is not the right way to better manage nutrition and energy needs in the world; the industrialization and internationalization in agriculture is imposing a system organized on a much more exploitation of people and resources. In the case of bio-fuels, the development of Oil Palm plantations and other bio-fuel crops in poor countries to feed cars in the North is not the solution for the energy crisis; the real and effective solution is to reduce energy consumption. Moreover, many studies show that the production of biofuels is exacerbating the climate crisis, not solving it.

So, what does GRAIN propose?
We have to support the development of small skilled farmers around the world. Unfortunately, at the moment, these small farmers are struggling against many odds: the policy against them, the prices against them, the market and the large corporations against them. All these things must be stopped. We have to create a sustainable agricultural model; “supporting more skilled small farmers” is the only way we can do it!

Question 12
: Finally, since GRAIN was founded 20 years ago, has the sensitivity of governments towards small farmers increased? Or are they still encouraging big corporations? What will be the future of Land Grabbing?

The answer to this question depends on how much optimistic or pessimistic you are about the future scenario. On the negative side, over the past decades there has been an increase in the power of big corporations in all areas of agriculture; this is partly due to the growing support they receive from most of the governments around the world: these governments have written (and are writing) laws that mainly favor the consolidation of the corporations’ power and allow them to pollute more instead of reducing their emissions. In particular, as for Land Grabbing, the World Bank and other international agencies are increasingly pushing poor countries to write legislations that favor the selling of lands (to the benefits of big corporations). However, on the positive side, in the past few years there has been a tremendous increase of local mobilization in poor countries that is asking for a new food system, a system based on “food sovereignty”, that gives answers to the needs of small farmers and supports the creation of direct local markets. Moreover, in Italy, Spain and many other European countries there has been a surge in movements which strongly support the creation of local markets as well as the consumption of healthy and ecological food. These movements are suggesting a new model for producing food around the world. This is, in my opinion, a very encouraging sign and can be the start for a new food system, a system which will be able to feed all the global population, reduce poverty and break down global greenhouse emissions.