At the beginning of June, I was invited to participate in a workshop in Brussels, organised by the International Biodynamic Movement, that looked at the two opposing strategic visions of ‘land grabbing’ and ‘land sharing.’

Land grabbing is obviously an emotive issue, so if one is going to use these words they should be properly defined. Without having made a comprehensive study of existing definitions, I would define it as: the acquisition by governments or investors of large areas of land for food production, without adequate regard for existing land users, and the primary purpose of which is either to increase the food security of a third country, or for the profit of institutional or individual investors.

It is important to get this clear from the outset, as there are many who argue that financial investment in so called ‘agricultural development’ is an important and necessary element of increasing food security.

Of course it’s hard to argue this, but if the investment results in the undermining of the interests of local food producers, increases dependency on non-renewable inputs such as fertilizers and hybrid seeds or disrupts indigenous cultures, then I would contend that such initiatives are against the interest of the long term food security of the nation which is playing host to this intervention.

In most ‘developed’ countries, this industrial/global trade commodity approach to land use is currently the dominant strategy. Consequently, many governments of countries who are net food importers, as well as corporate investors, are on a land acquisition spree, buying up land in countries where vast areas of as yet under-utilised arable land are up for grabs – often at knock down prices offered by corrupt government officials who are essentially selling or leasing the birthright of their future citizens to line their own pockets.

Various books have already been written about this subject including ‘The Land Grabbers’ by Fred Pearce, which does an excellent job of setting out the key issues and the scale of the problem. However, the real question is what can be done about it? People like me, who are deeply involved with issues of food production are reasonably well informed about land grabbing, but the vast majority of the public are hardly aware of the issue at all and as a result the insidious spread of land acquisition is proceeding, often under the radar screen, at an alarming rate.

When I was in Northern Kenya last April, I heard of the devastating consequences of one example of this land acquisition. In this case, the Ethiopian government has targeted land that has been historically occupied by nomadic pastoralists in the south of their country which, until now, has been unsuitable for cropping due to low rainfall.

To rectify this, the government is building a vast dam across the Omo River, the principle water supply for Africa’s fourth largest body of fresh water, Lake Turkana, which is situated just across the Ethiopian border in northern Kenya. The impact of the dam, and the subsequent irrigation programme, will be to halve the flow of water into Lake Turkana.

At present every drop of the current annual inflow into Lake Turkana – which constitutes a 17th of its volume – evaporates, so there is no outflow from the lake. As a consequence of the damming, it is predicted that its area will reduce by half in just a few years and it will become too saline to support its existing prolific fish stocks, on which tens of thousands of indigenous tribal people depend for a living.

Meanwhile, north of the Ethiopian boarder, the tribes whose lands are being acquired for irrigated intensive crop production have been evicted from their ancestral land, causing untold emotional and physical suffering. From both an ecological and humanitarian perspective, this constitutes an unfolding environmental and cultural disaster.

When I was first told about it, I was incredulous that the Kenyan government was not up in arms about the impending consequences of the Ethiopian dam and its impact on Lake Turkana. However, things are never as straight forward as they seem, as I learned from one of the Kenyan ministers, who told me that the Chinese government are co-financing the construction of turbines which will be installed in the dam and the electricity generated will be sold as a ‘sweetener’ for the Kenyans, at a low price.

If food systems are to become as secure and resilient as possible against future shocks, the reversal of the current trends towards industrial commodity crop production and centralised global trade will surely be necessary. This can only be achieved if millions of small farmers have adequate and secure access to the land upon which, ultimately, future generations will depend for their food security. The production, processing and distribution of key staple foods that the populations of any particular country, region and locality depend on for their sustainable nutrition must be protected.

What counter force will it take to overcome this potent concoction of politics, greed, bribery and corruption compounded by public ignorance? This, for me, is very much a question of our time and perhaps one we shouldn’t rush to answer prematurely. But what is needed, is a combination of global media exposure – ideally championed by individuals with celebrity status, who enjoy high levels of public trust – along with a bottom-up self-organising democratic movement of relocalised land sharing initiatives.

In the ‘old days’, meaning before the internet vastly widened our communication and information networks, one might have felt slightly despondent about the potency of bottom-up initiatives to drive change. But not any more.  It is now clear that there has been a profound shift in people’s interest in issues of this kind, that is driven by an intuitive understanding that change can happen at a cellular level and that it can spread potently through the arrival of emails, texts, Facebook posts and other forms of viral communication. One manifestation of this is organisations like Avaaz that can mobilise citizen power on an extraordinary scale very quickly indeed – so this is all cause for hope!

Photograph by CAFOD Photo Library

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news