The Land Rush

When we walk through our fancy supermarkets with its great variety of beautifully clean and symmetric products, it is easy to forget where all this food came from. We buy with our greedy eyes and often end up throwing much of it away. I am guilty of this as well and all though I am becoming more conscious of it everyday, it is something we should all be dealing with more actively. Our numbers are growing and the world’s arable lands are struggling to keep up. As Shannon Hayes mentions in a blog she wrote for Yes-magazine:

Feeding the world starts with individual accountability. It needs to be considered in every home, in every business. But the question must be reframed. Rather than asking farmers if the methods they use can feed the world, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Do my choices help enable the world to feed itself?” If the answer is no, then it is time to make different choices.

There is not one of us who is blameless when the question is reframed (myself included). But it is not solely up to the farmers to feed the world. It is up to each and every one of us to strive to live a life of personal accountability that will enable this earth to heal, and enable this world to feed itself.[1]

 Watching a documentary the other day made by Why Poverty, made this painful situation very clear and inspired me to dedicate yet another blog to the issue of land division and those who claim its rights. It is the phenomenon of land grabbing in particular that has gotten lodged into my mind. The documentary, titled Land Rush, focuses on the situation in Mali, where a sugar company called the Markala Sugar Company (SOSUMAR), aims to bring change to the local communities by involving them in the project. Despite what seem to be good intentions, SOSUMAR’s initiatives are met with resistance from locals, who fear for their rights as landowners and their traditional way of life. As Calestous Juma, African author of The New Harvest describes at the beginning of the documentary:

Agriculture is a culture. It’s a way of life and every time you change a way of life, you create uncertainty about the distribution of benefits and risks.[2]

The land-leasing scheme the sugar company proposed, would take land from rural farmers and develop it, using irrigation and industrial farming techniques, recompensing the farmers with alternative land, cash and other benefits. One of the downsides of the project was that the Shea trees from which the women from the villages have made shea butter for thousands of years, would have to be cut down. SOSUMAR promised more trees would be replanted than the amount that was sacrificed. The fact that it takes up to six years for a single tree to become productive again however, made it difficult to raise the spirits of the local villagers to this prospect. People are impatient and six years is a long time when there is so little assurance that everything will go as promised.

 In order for the people to believe in the future they must see commitment today. The documentary shows the mistrust in the villagers eyes as their ancestral lands slowly slip between their fingers and no progress is made by the sugar company to compensate for their losses. The determination of the American entrepreneur Mima Nedelcovych – who was the great driving force of the project- , to do this all according to the book was not only noble and necessary in order for it to be successful on the long run, but it also proved to be frustratingly slow and inefficient as their project became a political tool in election time. In the end the process took too long, a coup d’etat knocked over the government and forced SOSUMAR to retreat from Mali completely.

As one of the more intellectual farmers points out, while discussing the issue around the evening fire:

Most of the bureaucratic elite in Africa hates the agricultural sector. They don’t say it, but they have a form of hatred for the very basis of their own existence. (…) Instead of finding real ways to develop Africa, they dream of imposing models that will never fit here. That’s why I’m fighting with others who believe that we can’t have a stable, steadily developing country if most of its people are marginalized.

The man quoted above is Ibrahim Coulibaly and he joined La Via Campesina, an international organization run for and by small farmers from around the world to deal with the troubling issues they face today. A recent report published by the Rights and Resources Initiative analyzes the consequences the mobilization of small farmers on such a scale might have on agribusinesses, arguing that failure to inform or fairly compensate affected locals heightens the risks to investors. [3] I think this is a very necessary point of view in order to change the attitudes of the multinationals, that are not only digging graves for the people they leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs, but also their own.

Two of the leading academics on this topic, Saturnino Borras and Jennifer Franco, have also recently published a report providing alternatives to the models that currently dominate land tenure. While so many minds ponder on what way to move forward, it is however up to us as individuals to choose what we eat more consciously and be aware of the consequences our behavior as consumers has on a greater scale. This is my new goal and I will let you know in future blogs in what way this new consciousness displays itself.


About Epi B

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. - Albert Einstein
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