Last week someone remarked to me that one research area that we really haven’t dug into – excuse my pun – is on land and security. And this person is right. That’s probably why I was drawn to this report in The New York Times on Saturday: “Farmers in China’s South Riot Over Seizure of Land.”
“Rioters in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have besieged government buildings, attacked police officers and overturned SWAT team vehicles during protests this week against the seizure of farmland, said officials in Shanwei, a city that skirts the South China Sea not far from Hong Kong,” The New York Times reported. “The violence was the latest outbreak of civil unrest in China fueled by popular discontent over industrial pollution, police misconduct or illegal land grabs that leave peasants with little or no compensation.”
I think it’s safe to say that we have a pretty good idea of how land grabs (and a range of other land issues, including deforestation and degradation) can produce instability in a country, and what the potential implications may be for security. But there are other interesting questions that often go unanswered when our analysis is focused too pointedly on the potential consequences of land issues. For example, what is behind land grabbing and other environmental land degradation in a country? Is it part of a larger trend we need to be attuned to? In China, these questions offer some interesting answers and observations.
If I had to pick one news story that stood out to me this weekend, it would have to be this piece from the Sunday Washington Post reporting on the growing domestic backlash to India’s land grab. The story stood out to me, in part, because land rights, use and seizing are issues we have not analyzed too much on the Natural Security blog. But as this report from yesterday’s Post portends, it is a creeping trend that we are likely to read more about as farmers in developing countries seek to hold onto their land in countries where population growth is shrinking the amount of arable farmland at the same time governments try to industrialize their economies by renting land to domestic or foreign companies.
“All over India, farmers are coming into conflict with the government as it tries to satisfy the country’s insatiable hunger for land for industry, infrastructure and urban housing,” the Post reported. “And the decades-old way of doing business — the government seizing the land under a British colonial law, paying a token compensation to farmers and then bullying people into submission — just isn’t working anymore.”
The report details a number of billion dollar investments being made by South Korean and Indonesian companies, to name just a few. Yet as the government attempts to capitalize on the interest from foreign companies, long-time farmers are rebuffing attempts by the government to seize their land. As a result, “Projects worth tens of billions of dollars have been held up as farmers, backed by local politicians and empowered by India’s vibrant television news channels, have found their voice — and said no,” according to the Post.
I almost forgot to flag this for you all. You need to check out the current (soon to be last month's) edition of Scientific American for this: "How Much Is Left? The Limits of Earth's Resources: A graphical accounting of the limits to what one planet can provide."
Does it have energy? Check. Does it mention minerals? You betcha. Does it - dare I say it - raise the troubles of biodiversity loss? You can count on it.
It's not a long piece, but a good overview of relevant info, cool graphs, and an interesting piece to SciAm's annual single-concept edition, this year on "The End."
To be an effective partner in local development projects, one must possess a significant degree of patience and flexibility. Primarily, I strived to gain the trust of the locals, meaning I partook in usual rural activities. My days in the Dominican Republic witnessed activities such as: milking cows at 7:00 AM under palm trees; enjoying the sunset while grilling fresh corn over an open fire; inducing goats to procreate; picking, drying, and shelling beans and peanuts; and attending my first rooster fight, questioning the actions of the rowdy Dominican men who have betted their weeks´ salaries on the victory of one rooster, grimacing at the sight of the triumphant rooster extracting the eyes of the other, very bloody rooster, and deciding that I would never return to such an event.
Gaining popular confidence in your mission helps you to better confront the inevitable difficulties inherent in all local projects. The cultivation of Jatropha was not without its own notable challenges:
Initial perceptions of Jatropha’s ability to grow on marginal land and withstand drought were overstated. The Dominican Republic and Haiti have faced an extended period of drought. This severe dry-spell has damaged agricultural yields throughout the island, including that of Jatropha curcas. I met with several farmers who lost entire plots. During my tenure, the project was reeling with the fact that marginal land often bears marginal results.
Mounted on the back of a motorcycle, traveling the makeshift dirt roads of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the efforts of IDDI, CIDEAL, and the EU in collaboration with local agriculturists were in plain sight: thousands of Jatropha curcas plants had matured throughout this mountainous region.
The Jatropha genus consists of approximately 175 species (including Jatropha curcas) from the Euphorbiacea family. The fruit of Jatropha curcas produces an oil that can processed into biodiesel.
As I learned, there are several benefits to using this plant as a source for biofuel. It is a hardy plant that can grow in marginal land and in arid/semi-arid regions. The cultivation of Jatropha curcas does not compete with food production and thus avoids the “corn ethanol syndrome.” It also yields many more times the amount of oil as other sources of biodiesel. The remaining portion of the seed after oil extraction is an excellent organic fertilizer and is being used in Africa and South Asia as a means to restore soil nutrients.
The New York Times reported this morning that the United States is willing to wade into a dispute over “a string of strategically sensitive islands in the South China Sea.” The above photo is an aerial image of one of the small islands in the Spratly island cluster. The Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea have long been a source of tension and even deadly dispute between Vietnam and China; they skirmished over them in 1988: dozens of Vietnamese sailors were killed, and several Vietnamese ships sunk.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, addressing a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), said, “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” the Times reported. The Times acknowledged that China “has long laid claim to islands in the South China Sea because they are rich in oil and natural gas deposits,” adding that Beijing “has put American officials on notice that it will not brook foreign interference in the waters off its southeastern coast, which it views as a ‘core interest’ of sovereignty.”
Photo: Courtesy of flickr user Storm_Crypt.
Sometimes you get the rare opportunity to read something that is not only extremely interesting, and relevant to national security, but also makes you laugh. Such was the case yesterday when I came across this Foreign Policy article which discussed how Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva just can’t wait to lay some sugar on his new world power BFF, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Well, more accurately, a sugar-based product: ethanol. But the possibility to make childish jokes, masking the true urgency of the issue, was too much to resist, as FP guest writer Gal Luft and now I have just proven. . . hence the photo choice.
In the true spirit of Friday’s post, I won’t overburden you with an in depth analysis of the security implications this relationship could hold for the United States (there’s the original article for that), but what I will do is hit you with an abbreviated synopsis of why this is no laughing matter.
U.S. sanctions against Iran, which are working their way through Congress, take aim at Iran’s Achilles’ heel: its energy needs and inability to domestically refine oil from its own massive deposits. Brazilian ethanol could prove to not only be a means by which Iran could brave the sanction storm, but also give it the time it needs to bulk up domestic production capabilities.
In short, if Brazil were to become Iran’s sugar daddy, the United States may find that Achilles just got a hold of some serious Doc Martens, leaving nothing to aim at, and certainly nothing to laugh about.
I picked up last week’s Rolling Stone for its cover story on the reissue and forthcoming documentary of Exile on Main St., but another story listed on the cover piqued my interest as well: “Capitalists of Chaos: Who’s Cashing in on Global Warming?”
As it turns out, this long piece is about the current wave of international investment in land that is or will continue to be arable and productive in the face of the effects of climate change. The thinking is that arable land is becoming squeezed by population and consumption trends, and that food and its production will become increasingly valuable. We’ve covered this a few times on the blog and in our publications, but not nearly to the depth this article presents – its author, McKenzie Funk, is writing an entire book on the subject.
Much of the article is focused on one man, Phil Heilberg, a former Wall Street commodities trader whose vision of future wealth centers on tracts of land he is purchasing in places such as southern Sudan. In style and content, it is not unlike reading about the international arms trade, and Funk focuses on Heilberg as one of the major forces in this growing industry much the way Viktor Bout was for his arms dealings. (While it is important to profile leaders within these often gray-market industries, like Bout, much of the Heilberg focus seems to derive from his openness in speaking with reporters rather than from him being the most important player.)
At first, the deal-making with African strongmen and tribal leaders for land seems shady. But as Heilberg explains, that’s the way things work in places like Sudan – you make deals with whomever you need to, or not at all. Heilberg operates within the existing system rather than requiring social or political change as a precondition for business. This is often one of the issues raised with China’s dealing in minerals, land and energy in Africa as well, but it is somehow less stark to read about it in the form of person-to-person transactions than in examining the issue at a country level. The article raises the question of whether modern ways of resource trading in the world are creating a new paradigm for international behavior at all levels that U.S. security analysts do not yet have a grasp on.