May 23, 2011

This Weekend’s News: No Trespassing

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.

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.

One has to wonder if the Indian government is playing with
fire and is prepared to endure the political repercussions that seem to me
mounting. Indeed, farming and related agricultural business account for more
than 50 percent of the workforce in India
, meaning that there is a large
constituency with a vested interest in preserving this industry. And as the Post reported, the political
implications of toeing the line between farming and industrialization have
already materialized:

“Tata Motors’ plans to build the world’s cheapest car at
Singur in West Bengal ran aground in 2008 when farmers complained that they had
been bullied and cheated out of their land. Indonesia’s Salim Group had to
abandon plans to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram, also in West Bengal, after
14 people were killed in clashes between farmers and police in 2007. Those two
incidents sent shock waves through Indian politics. The Communist Party had
ruled West Bengal for 34 years, but the violence that accompanied efforts to
seize land in Singur and Nandigram undercut its political support. This
month, Mamata Banerjee, who had championed the farmers’ cause, swept the
Communists from power to become West Bengal’s first female chief minister.

The tussles over land rights are, of course, not unique to
India. Many developing countries are trying to deal with this challenge,
especially countries that are being eyed by more developed governments and
foreign companies looking to rent or purchase foreign land, not only for
industrialization, but
to harvest food crops to feed their burgeoning populations back at home
And as I wrote on the blog last June, cultural
dynamics and challenges related to infrastructural redevelopment are playing a
role in land rights issues in Afghanistan
. The point is that the challenges
related to land use, rights and seizure are complex and changing, and they are
playing a more prominent role in shaping political dynamics. The ousting of
Madagascar’s President Marc Ravalomanana in March 2009, in part due to his complicity
in negotiating a deal with a South Korea company to lease the company half of
the country’s arable farmland
, was the most recent high-profile political
event linked to land issues and farming. The recent political turmoil in India
suggests it won’t be the last. And it is a challenge these governments will
need to be attune to.

This Week’s Events

Today at 2:00 p.m., head to the Wilson Center for a discussion
on “Forging
Central Europe's Energy Independence.”

On Tuesday at 9:00 a.m., the House Natural Resources
Committee will hold a hearing on "Strategic
and Critical Minerals Policy: Domestic Minerals Supplies and Demands in a Time
of Foreign Supply Disruptions."
Then beginning at 2:00 p.m., the New
American Foundation will be hosting a panel discussion on “The
Water-Energy Nexus.”
At 2:30 p.m., Resources for the Future will be
discussing “Saving
Energy and the Environment (CO2 Emissions) While Growing China’s Energy Intensive
Industries: Lessons for Indonesia.”
Starting at 4:00 p.m., the World
Resources Institute will be holding an event on “Grounding
Green Power – New Opportunities for Development Cooperation through Smart
Energy Policies.”

On Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., the House Committee on Foreign
Affairs will be holding a hearing on “UN
Climate Talks and Power Politics: It’s not about the Temperature.”
State Department’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, will be among
those testifying.