Need to reverse climate crisis is causing agricultural land in the Global South to be sold off to the highest bidder

As recently as 15 years ago, large-scale land grabs regularly made headlines around the world, as wealthy governments bought up fertile fields in poorer countries to grow and export produce to feed their own populations.

This was part of a trend that has seen 30 million hectares of agricultural land sold off around the world since the early 2000s, according to the Land Matrix, an independent monitoring initiative that tracks land deals across the world.

But these spectacular state-led land grabs appear to have now been replaced by silent, often small and incremental forms of expropriation, where capital extends its frontier for either expanding agricultural estates, conservation areas, carbon investments and energy projects.

Against this background, land struggles are playing out across the world.

In Colombia - Latin America's most unequal country in terms of land ownership, where the largest 1% of landholdings make up 81% of the land - this inequality is deeply intertwined with historical conflict. The concentration of ownership has been a main driver of the country's guerrillas wars since the 1960s, and the 2016 peace agreement included land distribution to displaced peasants as a key element.

"If we give landless peasants land it will help close the horrible chapter of violence", said Juan Carlos*, a peasant leader from a Campesino Reserve Zone in the highlands of central Colombia's Venecia municipality, at last month's International Conference on Global Land Grabbing, which featured a field trip to his area.

"The peace agreement took a long time to realise. It was a long struggle to get the land," he added.

Juan Carlos's Campesino Reserve Zone is one of Colombia's newest, having been established only in December 2023. It covers 8,473 hectares - 70% of Venecia municipality - including ten villages and around 600 farm households, where people plant maize, beans and some cash crops like tomato tree fruit, blueberries and naranjilla.

President Gustavo Petro's government has established seven of these demarcated zones - which were introduced in law in 1994 to protect the rights and livelihoods of peasant communities - over the past two years, bringing the total across Colombia to 14. This is part of the efforts to redistribute Colombian land to peasants, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples since the peace deal.

New settlement schemes and collective titling have also been introduced, distributing land seized from drug traffickers and purchasing large estates for redistribution, and the government has acquired more than 328,000 hectares to distribute among peasants and small-scale farmers.

Land struggles and the climate emergency

The conference on global land grabbing, which was hosted at the University of Los Andes in Colombia's capital, Bogotá, was unique in bringing together peasant activists involved in defending and reclaiming land and academics from universities spanning more than 50 countries around the world.

Participants put a spotlight on 'green grabs', where land - particularly in the Global South - is seized for notionally environmental purposes, such as conservation, constructing wind turbines, solar farms or hydro-dam infrastructures for alternative energy, and mining rare metals for batteries, as happens in the lithium triangle of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia.

These green grabs have intensified as states and companies increasingly commit to environmental, social and governance standards, green transitions or generating green economies.

But the positive rhetoric around these projects often neglects the consequences they have on local livelihoods, especially for peasant, Black and Indigenous communities, said Diana Ojeda, a Colombian professor at Indiana University in the US. She added that they also disproportionately affect women and children, who are most reliant on the land for their livelihoods, stressing: "Climate justice is agrarian justice."

Participants at the conference also questioned the effectiveness of the environmental projects that are causing the land grabs. Too often these amount to little more than 'greenwashing'.

Take forest carbon projects, for example. Polluting companies are buying up carbon offsetting credits, which they use to purchase land for planting trees in far-off places to offset their climate impacts and achieve net-zero targets.

Such projects are transforming landscapes across the world - from Brazil to Mozambique to Tanzania and Wales. But the trees are often planted in unsuitable places, undermining biodiversity and livelihoods as a result. The track records of carbon forestry projects are also dismal; it takes many years for a tree to start storing carbon, and many do not survive long enough to do so due to forest fires, poor maintenance or deforestation.

Even well-recognised accreditation agencies have come under fire for accepting projects that both cause local damage and fail to meet their promises of real climate change mitigation. Well-intentioned attempts to enhance 'integrity' in the $2bn voluntary carbon market may well not be enough.

How to balance the urgent need to address the climate emergency and avoid undermining lives, livelihoods and territories was a constant theme of discussion at the Bogotá conference. As one Afro-Colombian participant pointed out, local and Indigenous peoples are the guardians of the environment, and are committed to protecting it in ways that are compatible with their farming and livelihood systems.

"For us peasants, land is not just an investment or something we own, but is part of our lives and our existence", said Ibrahima Coulibaly, the president of the Network of Farmers' Organisations and Agricultural Producers of West Africa at a meeting co-convened by the Land Deal Politics Initiative, a loose network of scholars and activists concerned about the rise of land, water and green grabs.

Coulibaly and other participants of the meeting agreed that policy debates on land have for too long been stuck in the hallowed halls of the UN or government bureaucracies, where they are captured by market demands, such as offsetting. The subsequent 'solutions' then end up incompatible with local livelihoods, failing to consider food-provisioning, as well as people's cultures, histories and intimate connections with nature.

Land is so central to people's lives, it cannot be reduced to a simple commodity. As many at the meeting argued, alternatives centred on food sovereignty and environmental care must emerge from below, from local communities.

Ways forward

There are new challenges to confront when addressing land grabs. Gone are the days of foreign companies securing vast tracts of land through state-led deals; today local elites in collaboration with diverse forms of capital are often at the centre of grabs fuelled by financialisation and digital mapping.

Jhon Jairo Moreno, the president of the San Alberto chapter of the Sintraproaceites labour union, used his platform at the conference to accuse Colombian palm oil firm Indupalma of using legal and financial loopholes to evade labour responsibilities and exploit vulnerable workers. With ownership of over 10,000 hectares, Indupalma wields significant power, exacerbating the vulnerability of its workers.

Indupalma's 'dissolution', initiated in 2019 and leading to the termination of contracts for over 400 workers, has been condemned by employees as deceptive; the company is still operating, though its dissolution status enabled the hiring of third-party contractors for tasks legally reserved for direct employees.

With approximately 190,000 workers in Colombia's palm oil industry, these tactics are part of broader processes of differential land and resource accumulation that make land grabbing incredibly complex.

The financial networks involved are truly global and usually highly opaque, resulting in big challenges for regulation. They may include private finance from large corporations or banks, as well as more public sources of finance, leveraged via sovereign wealth funds, development banks, philanthropic investment portfolios, university endowments or pension funds.

Processes that were supposed to secure land and provide clarity of tenure may ironically open up land markets for speedier appropriation.

While periods of violence may result in displacement and land grabbing by criminal networks, as happened in parts of Colombia, much-welcome peace can also present new dangers, with new actors moving into now less violent spaces. The Colombian security policy deployed between 2002 and 2018, for example, led transnational corporations such as Cargill and the Monica Group to acquire land parcels exceeding 10,000 hectares in the eastern Orinoco region.

Securing land and preventing land grabbing must go hand-in-hand with inclusive, redistributive forms of economic development. Land, a vitally important asset, must be entrusted to those who have lost it - Indigenous people, Black communities, landless farmers, and other groups that have suffered displacement and geographical marginalisation. Agrarian reforms are essential for effective land guardianship, backed by state support, peace and strong legal frameworks.

This extends beyond mere tweaks to tenure security, 'land governance' or investment protocols; instead, it involves addressing land grabbing and nurturing agrarian reform as intertwined efforts. Campesino Reserve Zones, like the one Juan Carlos belongs to, serve as a prime example of legal instruments that oversee land being used to bolster peasant economies and advance rural development and climate action.

Colombia's minister of agriculture and rural development, Jhenifer Mojica, announced during the Bogota conference that her country will host the next International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development in 2026, 20 years after a landmark event held in Porto Allegre, Brazil.

This will be a joint initiative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the governments of Colombia and Brazil, among others, with social movements expected to be heavily involved and pushing for an urgently needed radical approach to agrarian and rural reform.

*Some names have been changed for security reasons.

From opoenDemocracy

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