Land grabbing in Latin America and the Caribbean in broader international perspectives

07 December 2011

A critical re-assessment of a UN FAO study on land grabbing finds that a too-narrow definition has obscured evidence of land grabbing on a wider geographical scale than previously thought; this research includes new evidence of cases in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This paper is based on an empirical research commissioned by the UN Food and Agriculture (FAO) on the state and trends in ‘land grabbing’ in seventeen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (see Annex for the complete list of the studies, plus the summary paper, FAO 2011). The seventeen studies have been concluded in mid-2011. The common analytical framework of the studies is both wide and narrow. On the one hand it is wide because it looks into the broad processes of rural land and capital concentration in the context of neoliberal globalization, and on the other hand, it is narrow because it looks into the phenomenon of ‘land grabbing’ based strictly on three specific dimensions, namely: i) significant extent of recent large-scale land acquisitions; ii) involvement of foreign governments in these land deals; and iii) negative impact of such renewed land investments on food security of the recipient country. It is largely because of this kind of framing that most of the studies were able to uncover, gather and assemble significant empirical material related to recent land dynamics in the region, but have to focus analysis and conclusions based on the narrow definition and dimension of land grabbing, arriving at a conclusion that ‘land grabbing’ exists only in two countries in the region: Argentina and Brazil.

This paper looks into the country studies and the summary paper more closely, using a broad agrarian political economy analytical perspective.[1] This approach necessarily includes analysis of nation-states that are involved in transnational land deals, but goes beyond this focus. It is broad (including national land deals), but at the same time not too open-ended. By looking at the purposes (and so causes) of the current land rush we will necessarily be dealing with recent changes in and imperatives of global capitalism more generally, and the variety of efforts at tackling the challenges posed by the convergence of multiple crises of food, energy, climate change and finance capital. This enables us to navigate somewhere between too narrow and too wide parameters.

The objective of the paper is to (re)interpret the empirical material in the seventeen country studies based on emerging land grab debates and literature internationally. Based on this, we draw out some tentative conclusions and identify some possible policy recourse and future research. In addition to the broad international literature, our paper will also reflect upon the insights from the seventeen country studies in the context of the key findings and recommendations of the land grab report released by the UN Committee on Food Security (CFS) High Level Panel of Experts or HLPE (Toulmin et al. 2011). We will figure out points of convergence and divergence between the latter and the current conditions and trends of land grabbing in Latin America and the Caribbean. In turn, we hope that the insights from this region can also help us understand better the global phenomenon of land grabbing. We will aspire to make this paper relevant for various audiences, namely, civil society activist, governmental, academic, and development policy circles.

Our main finding is that broadly cast, land grabbing is underway although unevenly, between and within countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The current condition of and trends in land deals point towards further expansion and faster pace in the near future. Land grabbing in Latin America and the Caribbean has distinct features, including: (i) the significance of private lands transacted, (ii) critical role played by domestic elites as key investors, (iii) the significance of intra-regional (Trans)Latina companies (TLCs) alongside conventional transnational companies (TNCs), (iv) the marginal extent of land deals with the Gulf States, China, South Korea and India (government or private land deals) that are among the major investors elsewhere, and (v) land grabbing in this region occurs in countries that do not fit the usual profile of a ‘fragile’ or ‘weak’ states in the way some observers argue land grabs tend to occur such as in several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. One can quickly see the difference in the political conditions between Brazil and Argentina on the one hand, and DRC and Sudan on the other hand. Yet, more generally, land grabbing in this region has a lot of similarities with the processes that occur in other regions of the world, principally the fact that all regions have been integrated into the process of neoliberal globalization during the past two to three decades, albeit in different ways and extent. Moreover, there are agrarian processes and transformations across regions that have been inspired by the recent changes in the global food, feed and fuel complex, the growing needs of global capitalist development especially in the context of the rise of BRICS and MICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa; Middle Incomes Countries) for meat, dairy products, timber and minerals, as well as the various climate change-related policy responses such as carbon trading and other mega conservation projects. Finally, the dynamics of land grabbing in the region generally reflect the overall key findings of the UN Committee on Food Security (CFS) High Level Panel of Experts’ Report on land grabbing that was released in July 2011. Insights from the former can deepen and strengthen the latter.

[1] We employ, in a loose manner, a broad agrarian political economy perspective, addressing four distinct but interlinked questions: who owns what? who does what? who gets what? what do they do with the produce/wealth that is created? (Bernstein 2010).

A paper prepared for and presented at the Latin America and Caribbean seminar: ‘Dinámicas en el mercado de la tierra en América Latina y el Caribe’, 14-15 November, FAO Regional Office, Santiago, Chile.

54 Pages

Table of contents

Introduction and key messages (4)

Scope, assumptions and context (10)

Key drivers and actors of the regional land rush (22)

      • International investors (23)
      • (Trans)Latina investors (26)
      • National/domestic investors (28)
      • Central State (29)

Dynamics of land use change (31)

Dynamics of land property and labour relations change (34)

Trajectories of agrarian-environmental change (39)

State-society contestations around land grabbing (40)

Policy and political implications and challenges for future research (44)

      • State (44)
      • International institutions (45)
      • Civil society organisations (46)
      • Research and academic community (46)

Conclusion: towards a 'land sovereignty' agenda (47)

Annex (49)

References (50)