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Land Grabbing in Latin America


Right now communities in Latin America, as around
the world, are suffering a new kind of invasion of their territories.
These invaders are not the descendants of the European conquistadores, who appropriated land, gathered slaves and plundered their colonial domains. Nor are they the big finqueros
(estate owners) of the 19th and 20th centuries, who expanded their
properties by carving up the territories of indigenous peoples and
creating vast plantations for the production and export of commodities
such as sugar cane, coffee, cacao, banana, henequen, gum, rubber and
hardwoods, and who relied on what has been called "indebted servitude",
forced labour under slave-like conditions. The new landowners are not
those who brought industrial agriculture into Latin America either, who
exploited local people's ancestral knowledge in order to adapt their
methods to the new environment and climate.

It may be said of all these notorious characters, rooted to "their"
lands and mansions, that they were physically present and politically
powerful within the region. They fought continually among themselves to
consolidate their fiefdoms (leaving a huge toll of dead soldiers). They
made enemies and forged alliances to expand their control over water,
labour, commerce, elections, public policies and access to land -
regardless of the rights and the lives of others. Yet these overlords
lived on or frequently visited their properties, and so came
face-to-face with the resistance and rebellions of the people who had
been invaded and dispossessed. No one feels nostalgia for them, but
communities fighting them could do something directly, know who to
struggle with, where to do it and when.

The history of Latin America is one of agrarian conflicts, and of
indigenous peoples struggling to defend their ancestral territories. A
new chapter of this history is opening. Another wave of land grabbing
is hitting the Americas, and this time it operates from a distance and
wears a halo of "neutrality". Today's land grabbers (as thoroughly
explained in governmental web brochures) say that they are merely
responding to food insecurity and a world crisis "that forces us to
grow food wherever we can, even if we outsource production, because we
will bring home this food for the benefit of our citizens". But when we
dig a little, the financial monster shows its tail. The land grabbers
are in fact big corporations and joint ventures investing enormous
amounts of money in land, food production, the export and import of
commodities, and food-market speculation.

Millions of hectares of farmland in Latin America have been taken
over by these foreign investors over the past few years for the
production of food crops and agrofuels for export. Much of the money
comes from US and European pension funds, banks, private equity groups,
and wealthy individuals like George Soros, and it is being channelled
through special farmland investment vehicles set up by both foreign and
local companies. Brazil's largest sugar company, COSAN, has a
specialised farmland investment fund called Radar Propriedades, which
buys Brazilian farmland on behalf of clients such as the Teachers'
Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund of
the US. Louis Dreyfus, one of the world's largest grain-trading
multinationals, has a similar fund into which American International
Group (AIG) has invested US$65 million. While media attention has
focused on land deals in Africa, at least as much money and more
projects are in operation in Latin America, where investors claim that
their farmland investments are more secure and less controversial -
ignoring the struggles over access to land being waged in practically
every country on the continent. More and more investors and governments
from Asia and the Gulf are training their sights on Latin America as a
safe place in which to outsource food production.

Most governments in Latin America embrace these developments, with
diplomatic missions frequently being sent abroad to sell the advantages
of investing in their countries' farmland. The Brazilian Minister of
Development, Miguel Jorge, recently told reporters: "Some Saudi princes
with whom we met last year [...] told President Lula that they do not
want to invest in agriculture in Brazil in order to sell here in
Brazil, they want food supply sources. They need food. So it would be
much more effective to have them invest in agriculture in Brazil in
order for us to be direct suppliers to those countries."[1]

But Brazil is not only a target of the new land grabbers, it is also
a source. Brazilian investors, backed by their government, are buying
land to produce food and biofuels in a growing number of other
countries in Latin America and Africa. In neighbouring Guyana, for
instance, the Brazilian government is financing the construction of
roads, bridges and other infrastructure to open up Guyana's
ecologically sensitive Rupununi savannah to large-scale agricultural
projects that will export crops to Brazil. Some Brazilian rice
producers who are now negotiating with the Government of Guyana for
99-year leases to large areas of indigenous lands in the Rupununi
savannah were recently forced by the Brazilian Supreme Court to abandon
lands that they had taken illegally from indigenous communities on
their own side of the border, in Raposa Serra do Sol.[2]
The multinational seed company RiceTec has approached the government of
Guyana for about 2,000 ha of land in the same region - a diverse and
fragile ecosystem that is home to several indigenous peoples. With this
new way of doing business, the former landlords and invaders get new
opportunities to grab land, with fewer economic and political risks,
and a new, "respectable" title of "foreign investors".

Evading responsibility

Much is at stake in this new wave of large-scale land grabs. They
entail a huge loss of national sovereignty. Any country that sells or
leases vast expanses of arable land through long-term contracts to
another country or foreign corporation is jeopardising its own national
sovereignty. Such deals hasten the more general dismantling of the
State - in which more and more functions are cut, privatised and
transformed to suit the interests of big business - and the larger
territorial dispossession of peoples and communities. As a result,
labour is dislocated and migration intensifies. Food production too is
dislocated, since, under these deals, governments or private investors
take over land to produce food for export to people elsewhere.
Investors arrive with their seeds and tractors, and even labour, to
extract nutrients from the soils and water of the "host country" and
ship them back to their home countries or to global markets in food
commodities. The host countries cannot be considered "exporters" in the
traditional sense, since no country, no local people are really
involved in the projects - just land that corporations exploit for
their own profit, without restriction.

Yet the lands targeted are never empty, idle or not needed by local
people without access to sufficient land. The first question that must
be asked is, therefore: who are the real owners or custodians of the
land that is being grabbed and controlled from afar? How is it that our
governments can put such huge expanses of land at the disposal of
foreign governments or corporations? Are they privately owned? Or are
governments simply expropriating them for ad hoc commercial
arrangements? It is said that the lands are only being leased, not
sold, but what is the difference - in terms of the devastation -
between being sold outright and leased for 50 or 99 years? The lessees
will eventually hand back not only the land, depleted and ruined, but
also the cost of recovering its fertility. These land grabs all drive
forward the expansion of a destructive model of industrial agriculture.

The new wave of land invasions also complicates people's defence of
their territories. The invader is more difficult to identify. The legal
mechanisms that communities can utilise to defend against
dispossession, devastation or pollution are not clear. Even where the
investors can be identifiable, they are shielded from the affected
communities by distance and by complex legal structures. Any "battle"
against them is set in a time and space that is not defined at all by
the communities or organisations.

The State, instead of protecting its people, protects the
investments of foreign companies and governments by criminalising and
repressing the communities who defend their territories. Borders thus
lose meaning. The structures of the host State serve the interests of
their new foreign "bosses", not in the manner of the old colonial
system of tribute, but through the new neoliberal commercial system,
where laws and regulations are dictated by free trade agreements and
investment treaties instead of national constitutions or even
international law.

But the most profound long-term consequence of this new wave of land
grabbing is the expansion of corporate control over food production.
Over the last fifty years, corporations have constructed the framework
that facilitates today's land grab, and now they are moving in to reap
the harvest. Land grabbing is not simply the latest opportunity to make
speculative investments for quick, massive profits; it is part of a
longer process in which agrochemical-pharma-food-transport corporations
are taking control of agriculture.

This is why self-governing communities prepared to defend their
territories and their systems for managing communal land are a real
threat to these schemes. Every organisation that stresses the
importance of food sovereignty, from the community level up, will
understand that this becomes an impossible feat in countries or regimes
that allow and encourage land grabbing. Indigenous communities in Latin
America know that without control of their own land they lose control
of food production, and their farming simply becomes a new form of
sharecropping. Thus more and more communities and organisations insist
upon full control over their land, to grow their own crops, using and
freely exchanging their native seeds and local knowledge. They insist
on complete control of their water, forests, soils, settlements and
pathways. And they insist on self-government, making decisions in

The new land grabbers, on the other hand, want to enclose more of
the commons. They want to dismantle our relationships and connections.
They no longer need to invade: they can make commercial deals. They no
longer have to carry the burden of maintaining slaves; they can rely on
a ready supply of low-wage labour. They are no longer responsible for
crushing the rebellious; the host governments will deal with those
issues. If they do not, appropriate international companies will
provide the service through informal gunmen. Neoliberalism is the
invention of scheme upon scheme to avoid responsibility. To reverse the
tide, we need to base our future upon taking responsibility.


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