February 10, 2010

Read This Now: Land Grab? The Race for the World’s Farmlands

Our colleagues in the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars recently released a comprehensive report, Land Grab? The Race for the World’s Farmlands, that looks at the increasing frequency of food-importing developed nations and private companies investing in huge tracts of arable farmland in less developed countries.

This is an area that, while we haven’t explored deeply, we are beginning to study more and more here in the Natural Security program. We’re particularly interested in the ways that these emerging economic trends are engaging other socioeconomic and political trends in developing countries, which could lead to instability in countries of geostrategic importance to the United States (e.g. Pakistan).

According to the report’s authors:

Large-scale land acquisitions may have a negative effect on the wider sociopolitical and economic context of the host country. There are documented cases, such as the Daewoo Logistics Corporation’s (ultimately unsuccessful) plan to lease 1.3 million hectares of land in Madagascar, where negotiations over deals have contributed to political instability and internal social conflict. These deals touch on the already politically contentious issue of land allocation and land rights, so they carry a possibility of exacerbating existing tensions.

Granted, to this point Madagascar is the only case where a land deal has contributed to widespread political instability. However, the factors at play in most host countries—land, food insecurity, and poverty—make up a combustible mix that could easily explode. In countries—such as Pakistan—where violent, extremist anti-government movements have mastered the ability to exploit land- based class divisions, the political risks are particularly high.

The report is intended for a much broader (global) audience and, rightly so, is not explicit about how these trends might engage U.S. national security interests. But for researchers like us who study natural resources and economic trends and analyze their engagement with national security, the report is robust and offers useful case studies in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe that are a great jumping off point for our further research. You should read this now!