The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will give new impetus to the large-scale acquisition of land in developing countries by foreign companies or governments, to use it to produce agricultural or forestry products that do not benefit the local population, but rather the from another country, warns an international team of scientists in this Friday’s edition of the journal science. “This land grab typically leads to social and environmental problems,” they write.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, and with greater incidence after the 2007-2008 food crisis, when food prices skyrocketed, creating social instability and food insecurity in both developing and developed countries, “more than 45 million hectares, approximately the size of Sweden or Morocco, were acquired through transnational businesses for agricultural production”, says the article whose first author is Jampel Dell’Angelo, from the Institute of Environmental Studies at the Vrije University, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
The 2008 food crisis had multiple factors, but it has been suggested that gradual changes in the diets of the populations of countries that achieved new prosperity in recent decades were a decisive factor in the rise in prices that triggered this crisis. But the poorest suffered the most, not only because of the price of food, but also because of the pressure on the agricultural lands of their countries, sought after to satisfy the needs of other, more prosperous societies.
“The unprecedented expansion of these land investments has raised concerns about a neocolonial wave of land and water appropriation in the Global South”, explain the authors, who fear the effects of the new food crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. This is done not only through lack of food and fertilizers, but also from rising inflation.
To get an idea of the impact of the war, it must be said that Ukraine and Russia, together, guaranteed 30% of the world’s needs in wheat and barley, a fifth of corn and more than half of sunflower oil, according to United Nations figures.
“We propose that the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will fuel the resurgence of a new global race for farmlandprovoking transformations that will have a cascade of long-lasting effects, in multiple dimensions of rural development”, they write in the science.
“This forecast is based on historical experience (repeat of the post-2008 crisis), as well as on the observation of some signs that are emerging, such as shocks in food production, increase in the price of fertilizers, oil, energy in general and also on demand [de alimentos]”, he explained to PÚBLICO, emailJampel Dell’Angelo.
a globalized standard
Asking the question only in terms of countries acquiring or entering into long-term land leases with governments in other countries can be limiting, underlines Dell’Angelo. “Companies that invest in large-scale land acquisitions often have different banners”, says the researcher.
“For example, there may be an investment fund based in New York and shareholders from different countries, perhaps most of them from the Middle East, which owns a company in Tanzania that is the legal owner of the land concession and development of the agricultural business. ”, illustrates.
Although in many cases the investors are public companies, it can be difficult to understand which countries are involved in a specific deal. “In general, there is a globalized pattern, with the involvement of several countries in each contract. Even when it comes to domestic investments, there is often foreign capital involved in the business”, concludes Dell’Angelo.
It is easier to identify countries that are of interest to investors. “Most of the businesses are in Latin America, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa”, he summarizes.
Increased deforestation and destruction of biodiversitysays Dell’Angello, are the main impacts in environmental terms of the advance of these businesses in which large extensions of land in developing countries are acquired or rented for agricultural and forestry production destined for high-income countries.
A serious consequence is the appropriation of water resources. “It is something that is integrated into the appropriation of land. The water that is used to grow the pastures that feed cattle in Brazil that will end up in hamburgers that feed Americans, or enter the Chinese meat processing industrial chain, can be seen as water that is being ‘exported’ , which is not used in Brazil by the population or local ecosystems”, explains Dell’Angelo. “This is especially serious because it happens in countries that have high levels of water scarcity and/or malnutrition rates”, stresses the scientist.
The negative impacts of these transnational contracts for the use of agricultural land in developing countries are, however, varied: “They range from the appropriation of water resources to the increase of fossil fuelsfood insecurity and a variety of social and political effects such as reduced employment, land expropriation and the violent suppression of social mobilizations”, lists the team in the article in science.
“Our biggest fear is that the changes triggered may become irreversible”, stressed Dell’Angello to PÚBLICO. “When local populations, farmers, indigenous peoples are expelled from their lands, it will be very difficult for them to return. Ecosystems are destroyed, forests cleared, and it will be very difficult for them to be restored”, he specifies.
The main alert that scientists want to issue is exactly this, the impacts of war in Ukraine on global food and agriculture could trigger irreversible structural changes.
“The issue of land and water appropriation should be highlighted in the negotiation of international agreements and investment treaties”, says the team. “Global supply chains, deforestation, biodiversity, water and climate change these are all areas where there should be a coherent effort to integrate policies related to land grabbing”, they write in the science. It’s a way of mentioning recent agreements on biodiversity or climate change, for example.
“Existing social and environmental regulations have gradually weakened, and in most cases, safeguards to prevent land grabbing are only voluntary. For the issue of appropriation of water resources, the problem is even more complicated, it is a subject that has received virtually no attention so far in terms of governance initiatives”, emphasizes Dell’Angello.