Introduction: Land and Resource Grabs

An overview of struggles for the right to land, in the US and globally.

“Today’s farmland grabs are moving fast. Contracts are getting signed, bulldozers are hitting the ground, land is being aggressively fenced off and local people are getting kicked off their territories with devastating consequences. While precise details are hard to come by, it is clear that at least 50 million hectares of good agricultural land – enough to feed 50 million families in India – have been transferred from farmers to corporations in the last few years alone, and each day more investors join the rush.” 

-Via Campesina and GRAIN, “It’s time to outlaw land grabbing, not to make it ‘responsible’!”

Land is essential for growing food, and so it is essential for ending hunger. Agriculture is based on the cultivation of land, livestock need land to graze, and fisherfolk need coastal land to launch their boats. Among the world’s hungry – around one billion people – more than two thirds depend on basic resources such as land, water, and livestock for their livelihoods. These are the smallholder farmers, farm workers and food workers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples and forest dwellers – they are the world’s food producers, yet they are also the most vulnerable and marginalized. Too often, governments do not invest in them and transnational corporations systematically undermine their rights and livelihoods. And an unjust paradox where people who produce food are the ones driven into hunger and poverty. This context makes the recent surge in large-scale foreign acquisitions so threatening. What is happening to the human rights of the poor, to the rights especially to land and food?

Land grabbing is a global phenomenon initiated by local and transnational elites, governments and multinational companies in order to control the most precious resources in the world… [It] exceeds the traditional North-South split that characterizes imperialist structures.

Land grabbing displaces and dislocates communities, destroys local economies, cultures and the social fabric. It endangers the identity of communities be they peasants, small-scale farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, workers, indigenous peoples… Or land and identities are not for sale…

There is no way to attenuate the impact of this economic model and of the power structures that defend it. Those who dare stand up to defend their legitimate rights and survival of their families and communities are beaten, imprisoned and killed… The struggle against land grabbing is a struggle against capitalism…

-Via Campesina, 2012

The Struggle for Land and Land Grabs

There is a long history of land dispossession through colonialism, military regimes taking over land, and landowners and corporations displacing peasant farmers, all of which have contributed to hunger and disregard for the rights of peasants and local communities. But now, the global food system itself has become the dominant force destroying small-scale farms and moving peasants off the land. Millions of peasants around the world have been losing their farms as cheap and industrially produced foreign crops from developed countries undersell the peasants’ own crops, leaving them in debt. Farmers become farm workers on their own land, as bigger and bigger mechanized farms move in and corporate forces buy the land at cut-rate prices that indebted smallholder farmers can no longer afford. The land grabs happening today around the world show that this displacement process continues, powered by foreign governments and corporate investors.

Today’s global land grab is easily one of the most dangerous and pressing threats to the right to food. In The Great Land Grab, the Oakland Institute reports that since 2009, 60 million hectares of farmland in Africa—roughly the size of France—has been bought by foreign governments, financial speculators, and agribusiness corporations. Details on these land deals are often difficult to come by, partly because it is often unclear who owns the land, much of it being land that has been farmed collectively by small-scale farmers and Indigenous peoples for decades without an official title. Rather than protecting these traditional rights to land, corrupt governments are complicit in undermining their own citizens’ rights.

Land grabs are happening every day all over the world, especially in the Global South where researchers have uncovered the worst cases of exploitative deals. They are also happening in the U.S. and are affecting all of us, especially those who are most vulnerable. When there are 1 billion people hungry, and when 1.5 billion small-scale farmers only have an average of 2 hectares to grow on, it is unconscionable that foreign entities, national elites and other outside actors should be able to take land to profit off of rising land prices. It is all even more egregious when nearly all of this stolen land is used to produce agrofuels to power cars, or export food crops – industrial products and industrial food that undermine food sovereignty.


Social Movements Rise Up

Land reform in the narrow sense describes the transfer of land ownership from the more powerful to the less powerful: it covers the possession and the use of land. Agrarian reform is the transfer of agricultural land within an overall redirection of the whole agrarian system. It includes tenure security, infrastructure and support services to help small-scale farmers, wider access to seeds, water, and technology, help with marketing crops and building rural enterprises. These wider reforms are especially important for rural women farmers who have less access to land, to farms, and livestock, even as they produce most of the food for their families and local markets. When they control land, rural women become even more powerful agents of change and champions of rural food security . For the purposes of this topic, land reform is used in the wider sense of agrarian reform.

Land reform is a key to building food self-reliance and preventing the rural poor from being marginalized by globalization and land takeovers. Landless movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are creating land reform “from below.” The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil has used an opening in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution to expropriate unused land for a million landless peasants in thousands of farming communities building new lives on 35 million acres. MST is seen as building a new culture of gender equality as well as ethnic and intergenerational equality, while creating a “land pedagogy” about the importance of land as building new people. MST encampments have their own schools, providing political education and teaching civic and social engagement. The physical environment, as well as the social environment, is integrated in the MST encampments. Members learn to find water and grow food, and develop a diversity of cooperatives and businesses. They are embracing agroecology and developing solidarity links with the urban poor.

North American food security and food sovereignty activists can get behind these and other international land reform initiatives, but land reform is also needed at home. As local food movements spread within the United States, the need for land to grow food in and around cities is also growing. Rural communities, devastated by a food system that favors large farms over small, need to be rebuilt in North America. New farmers require access to land, but farmland is being swallowed up by urban sprawl, and land grabs are happening in American cities such as Detroit, as food conglomerates take over land in the inner cities. This topic seeks to inform readers about these struggles for the right to land, and how to support these struggles, in the U.S. and globally.


Updated 12/2014