With all the talk about "food security," and distorted media statements like "South Korea leases half of Madagascar's land,"1 it may not be evident to a lot of people that the lead actors in today's global land grab for overseas food production are not countries or governments but corporations. So much attention has been focused on the involvement of states, like Saudi Arabia, China or South Korea. But the reality is that while governments are facilitating the deals, private companies are the ones getting control of the land. And their interests are simply not the same as those of governments.
"This is going to be a private initiative."
– Amin Abaza, Egypt's Minister of Agriculture, explaining Egyptian farmland acquisitions in other African nations, on World Food Day 2009
Take one example. In August 2009, the government of Mauritius, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, got a long-term lease for 20,000 ha of good farmland in Mozambique to produce rice for the Mauritian market. This is outsourced food production, no question. But it is not the government of Mauritius, on behalf of the Mauritian people, that is going to farm that land and ship the rice back home. Instead, the Mauritian Minister of Agro Industry immediately sub-leased the land to two corporations, one from Singapore (which is anxious to develop the market for its proprietary hybrid rice seeds in Africa) and one from Swaziland (which specialises in cattle production, but is also involved in biofuels in southern Africa).2 This is typical. And it means that we should not be blinded by the involvement of states. Because at the end of the day, what the corporations want will be decisive. And they have a war chest of legal, financial and political tools to assist them.
"What started as a government drive to secure cheap food resource has now become a viable business model and many Gulf companies are venturing into agricultural investments to diversify their portfolios."
– Sarmad Khan, "Farmland investment fund is seeking more than Dh1bn", The National, Dubai, 12 September 2009
Moreover, there's a tendency to assume that private-sector involvement in the global land grab amounts to traditional agribusiness or plantation companies, like Unilever or Dole, simply expanding the contract farming model of yesterday. In fact, the high-power finance industry, with little to no experience in farming, has emerged as a crucial corporate player. So much so that the very phrase "investing in agriculture", today's mantra of development bureaucrats, should not be understood as automatically meaning public funds. It is more and more becoming the business of … big business
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