Who Owns the Earth? A Review of Fred Pearce’s The Land Grabbers

The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth

By Fred Pearce (Becon Press, 2012)

By Fred Nelson

Over the course of the past six years, the issue of land acquisition, commonly referred to as “land grabbing” in both popular media as well as academic discourse, has risen to near the top of the global development, human rights, and environmental conservation agendas. The reason for this sustained attention is obvious: Land is being transferred at unprecedented scale in ways that will permanently alter millions of people’s livelihoods and economic opportunities, in addition to landscapes and the environment, in ways that are probably irrevocable. Land rights lie at the heart of the social contract between states and their citizens, and the struggles of communities to keep control of their traditional lands could either lead to enhanced security, development, and growth or to an escalation of social and environmental damage.

The Economist, for example, last year cited a figure of around 80 million hectares — nearly 200 million acres or nearly twice the size of California — as being subject to “land grabbing.” The International Land Coalition (ILC) has compiled a land matrix documenting a total of 203 million hectares as approved or under negotiation between 2000 and 2010, while the World Bank estimates that 22 million hectares globally were subject to acquisition in 2008-2009 alone.

Underlying this surge in land acquisition around the world are fundamental economic changes in global commodity markets, as well as rising influence in these markets of countries such as Brazil, China, India, and South Africa. Between 2005 and 2011 the World Food Price Index doubled, with spikes in key staple foods in 2008 and again in 2011. Jeremy Grantham, a leading financial investor, notes in a recent letter to his fund’s clients that the world is, “about five years into a chronic global food crisis that is unlikely to fade for many decades,” recommending substantial portfolio investments in farmland, timber, and other natural resources.

Other commodity prices have followed similar trajectories as food prices; the global oil index rose nearly three-fold from 2005 to 2011. Both timber and now the emerging carbon credit market are also contributing to greater demand for land, while mining and tourism investments also contribute. Oil prices, combined with public policies in Europe and elsewhere to reduce carbon emissions, have led to a surge in interest in bio-fuels, which, according to the ILC global data, account for more than half of all land acquired during the past decade.

A final element of contemporary global land acquisition trends, which is the key to understanding how “land acquisition” becomes “land grabbing,” is the marked geographic concentration of these deals in Africa. For example, 70 percent of the deals reported by the World Bank for 2008-2009 were situated in Africa, while the ILC’s 2000-2010 land matrix figures represent 66 percent African lands (134 million out of 203 million hectares total; the former figure is over 4 percent of Africa’s total land area). 

The reasons for land investments in agriculture, forestry, bio-fuels, and other industries targeting Africa include several basic elements. First, land is generally cheap, with prices for long-term leases often an order of magnitude less than land prices in southern Asia or parts of Latin America and, in some cases, no rent at all being charged by governments seeking to attract investors. Second, Africa has large areas of undeveloped or uncultivated land, at least creating the appearance of having land readily available for commercial investments in agriculture and other activities. Finally, most land in Africa is formally controlled by the state, making large areas of land relatively easy to acquire.

This global overview of land acquisition provides the backdrop for The Land Grabbers, in which Fred Pearce, a noted environmental journalist and frequent contributor to The Guardian, has compiled the first popular journalistic portrait of this issue on a global scale. He provides a broad and diverse overview that is comprehensive and colorful. Twenty-six chapters, quite a few less than 10 pages, cover a wide array of local land conflicts, from Ethiopia to Indonesia to Ukraine, as well as examining the sources of market demand for land ranging from food security in Saudi Arabia to commodities speculators in Chicago and London. Sundry investors and project developers of varying pedigrees populate these vignettes. There’s the American missionary converting a swamp into farmland in Kenya and the Mennonite communities in the remote Paraguayan Chaco — Virgin’s Richard Branson even makes several appearances in a chapter about private nature reserves. Not to mention the various gunrunners, mercenaries, and hustlers. For anyone with a direct experience with private enterprise in Africa’s “frontier” markets, this assemblage will seem alarmingly familiar.

With new data-laden reports and academic papers coming out on a seemingly weekly basis describing the dynamics of global land grabs, Pearce’s book plays a valuable role in bringing to life the human element involved in these deals, including both affected local communities and investors. It goes without saying that The Land Grabbers is vastly more accessible to non-specialized readers than, for instance, last year’s comprehensive World Bank study, Rising Global Interest in Farmland, which has become one of the leading technical references in the land debate. 

Like much of the media’s coverage of land grabbing, the core theme of Pearce’s interwoven narratives revolves around the market-driven forces driving the increased demand for land, and the impacts, both positive and negative, of land acquisition on communities in Africa and elsewhere. Understandably, a core purpose of the book is to depict and document those impacts, as well as to examine the complex moral and policy choices involved in these land deals, such as how to balance the potential macroeconomic values of commercial mechanized agriculture with the exigencies of rural livelihoods, or the rights to self-determination of indigenous people. Pearce provides a wide range of relatively balanced perspectives, even while making clear arguments in favor of local rights and expressing outrage at the bureaucrats and investors whose interests do not always align with the local communities’.

Investors looking for large areas of land are targeting Africa because land is cheap and large areas are, in effect, up for sale. The reason land is cheap in African countries, however, is not because it is not valuable, but in part, because those doing the selling, governments in Africa, do not bear the costs of surrendering the land and resources in question. Local communities, who do bear those substantial costs of lost resources, in many cases, do not control their land because they lack documented title or recognition of customary rights to their territories. The availability of cheap land in Africa is thus in large part a political artifact — a function of land tenure patterns and legal arrangements that dispossess local communities, which are rooted in Africa’s colonial history.

While farms and homesteads tend to be held individually, often based on these local customary norms and knowledge of whose land is whose rather than formal title, the majority of land in Africa — estimated at some 1.6 billion ha in total — is held collectively. This includes forests and pastures that support livestock, hunting and gathering, and other natural resources that underpin local livelihoods and economies. Such resource dependence is not only a characteristic of remote forest-dwelling communities; in modern South Africa, collection of local veldt products, such as wild foods, contributes an estimated $450 per household, or $800 million annually on the national scale. While most land in Africa is used according to local customs, this land is for the most part legally owned as the property of the state. This legal status derives from Africa’s colonial history, when European governments essentially appropriated most lands as state property (e.g. Crown lands in British colonies). In the post-colonial era, these property arrangements were convenient for African leaders’ inclinations toward centralized economic planning as well as controlling rural citizens in often-fragile young states. Over time, as African states gradually took on a more “privatized” character, wherein personal interests on the part of the governing elite came to dominate governance patterns, centralized control over lands became a key element of this political economy. Today, as lands and natural resources become more valuable, opportunities arise for leveraging global market demand for agricultural land into greater opportunities for private gain and patronage-based politics.

Lorenzo Cotula, a researcher with the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development and a leading expert on land acquisition in Africa, describes this basic governance pattern:

…  attracting international capital provides national elites with opportunities for business activities, political patronage, and personal gain. The central role of the state in natural resource relations enables national elites to control resources through their control over state institutions; conversely, it allows them to maintain their grip on state institutions by using resource allocation as a tool for political patronage. High-level government officials may benefit personally from large land deals. … Keeping local resource rights in check facilitates the unhindered deployment of these strategies.

These political considerations are fundamental to understanding the dynamics of land grabbing in Africa, and indeed what constitutes “land grabbing” as opposed simply to “land acquisition.” The latter simply connotes the purchase of land in an open market and does not necessarily involve the issues of dispossession and loss of property, or the abrogation of other users’ rights, that “land grabbing” suggests. But in many poorly governed settings, land that either legally or in practice is or should be the property of one group of people — normally poor rural communities — is being sold or leased to somebody else. Pearce’s case studies in countries such as Ethiopia and Cambodia demonstrate the flagrant disregard for not only rural citizens’ interests in some of these deals, but also these nations’ own written statutes in many instances. That the rule of law is often flouted in such land deals should not be surprising; the predominance of informal, personalized decision-making over formal legal code is a basic characteristic of countries with weak governance and high levels of corruption. 

But Pearce also includes in The Land Grabbers many cases whereby land is simply being purchased on an open and relatively functional market, rather than being “grabbed” through questionable or outright illegal actions. To be sure, there is a fine line between “grabbing” and “buying” land, but it is a distinction that needs to be made. The spread of private game ranches in South Africa, a trend which goes back to the 1960s, or Ted Turner’s purchase of thousands of acres of ranches in the western United States, examples which Pearce includes, are not really land grabs at all and distract somewhat from the cases where local rights and interests are being clearly violated through land transactions.

Developing a clearer understanding the political and governance roots of land grabs in Africa is essential if appropriate local and global measures are to be formulated to address land grabbing. Much of the engagement on land grabs has been at the level of international investors, such as with various codes of conduct on land or agricultural investments, or with the various industry roundtables that seek to voluntarily regulate commodity chains for products such as oil palm and soy. 

Such interventions are important; ultimately, though, the central issue not only for land grabbing, but also for much wider developmental and environmental concerns is the anachronistic reality that up to half a billion residents of rural Africa continue to lack recognized rights to their lands and territories. As long as such huge numbers of people remain, to borrow from one recent appraisal of tenure relations in an African country, “squatters on their own lands,” their rights and livelihoods will remain insecure and vulnerable.

Some recent policy measures and reform movements in Africa represent the potential for the new pressures on land to encourage positive change. In Kenya, which has a long history of large-scale land grabs by colonial and post-colonial political elites, the new constitution approved by public referendum in 2010 overhauls the country’s land tenure system, most notably by creating a new category of community lands, which will consist of lands formerly held in trust for rural communities by district governments (known as trust lands). Tanzania, inspired in part by Kenya’s reforms and its own changing political environment, has also embarked on a constitutional review with a great deal of focus on land reform. In South Sudan, the newly independent country’s constitution, as well as land legislation passed in 2009, provide strong protections for customary land rights, although in practice implementation has been non-existent and large-scale land grabbing has been prevalent.

At the local level, there is enormous opportunity to use existing laws and policies to strengthen communities’ abilities to defend and secure their rights; often one of the key underlying enablers of land grabs in Africa is simply local people’s lack of knowledge of their rights under the law and access to legal support and judicial institutions. For example, a recent study released by Namati, a land rights-focused organization based in Washington DC, and which includes cases from Liberia, Uganda, and Mozambique, highlights the potential for paralegal training combined with external procedural assistance to help communities document and secure their land rights.

Ultimately, the scale and nature of current land acquisition patterns in Africa is symptomatic of long-term structural governance issues relating to the social contract between states and their citizens, issues that affect nearly all social and economic development concerns. As with constitutional reform in countries such as Kenya, reforming property rights and tenure relations is a key element of the much wider reformulation of citizenship and the evolution of more accountable and representative political institutions. For local communities in Africa to prevail in this “new fight over who owns the earth,” as Pearce’s subtitle aptly phrases it, they must also progress in the rather older fight over governance and accountability in their societies. Today’s struggles over land rights and citizenship are fundamentally intertwined. 



Fred Nelson is Executive Director of Maliasili Initiatives, a US-based non-profit organization that supports natural resource conservation, sustainable development, and social justice in Africa by working with leading local organizations to build their capacity to foster collaborative and innovative incentive-based solutions (

Related posts