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a sceptical Ethiopian watches a foreign plough
Ethiopians are used to seeing their land ploughed by foreign investors' machinesImage: DW

Land grabbing

February 7, 2012

Land grabbing has become a common term in Africa and across the world. Critics warn that it is increasing hunger and poverty in rural communities. In a special series, DW takes a look at the impact of land grabbing.


Land grabbing is the name given to the controversial practice of the large-scale acquisition of land, generally in developing countries, by transational companies, governments and individuals. It is often used to refer to the time after the world food price crisis of 2008/9 which prompted a dramatic increase in large-scale agricultural investments in the global south, for the purpose of food and biofuels production.  Ethiopia is often held up as an example of the negative face of land grabbing, with critics citing the forced relocation of local pastoralist populations, poorly paid work on the new farms and environmental degradation.

In the first part of a special series on land grabbing, DW talked to Joachim von Braun about the impact of land grabbing on food security. He is a renowned agricultural economist and serves as the director of the Center for Development Studies at Bonn University. 

Deutsche Welle: Professor von Braun, what is the link between land grabbing and food security?

Joachim von Braun:  When we talk about land grabbing, we are talking about a new phenomenon, triggered by increased world food insecurity.  Less food in the markets has driven up food prices on international markets since 2007.  During the food crisis of 2008/9 countries were blocking trade and that made importing countries even more nervous and that was when we saw the first wave of foreign direct investment in land.  Since then, things have changed.  Foreign investment in land with water has further accelerated, especially in Africa in 2010/11, but for different reasons. Commercial interests, high oil prices, and the search for safe investments at a time of financial instability are in the forefront.

An Indian investor in Africa
Asian companies are among the biggest investors in the agricultural sector in Africa.Image: DW

What effects does land grabbing have?

The effect of foreign investment in large scale agriculture depends very much on what is happening locally. There is good investment and there's land grabbing and our research indicates that both exist. The situation is worst when local land rights are not respected, when local government is not well supervised by the judiciary and when ethnic minorities are marginalized. In countries where the rights of rural people are not well protected, the investments run the danger of increasing poverty and food insecurity.  In countries where there is a good rule of law and adherence to good practices, the situation is not bad.  That's why we are calling for improved codes of conduct that are really enforceable to make sure that, not only in the countries where the investment takes place but also where the investor comes from,  the rule of law and respect for the land rights of rural communities are assured.

Some people call land grabbing a new form of colonialism.  What do you make of that statement?

 I don't agree. Colonialism was governments moving into countries and taking rights and land away. The initial phase of land grabbing included some efforts by governments to engage but nowadays it results from commercial pressure on land.  To compare it with colonialism is historically incorrect.

Professor Joachim von Braun
Professor Joachim von Braun.Image: ZEF

Does land grabbing increase the number of people suffering from hunger in Africa?

The phenomenon is too young.  At this stage we can't say this is the case because African agriculture urgently needs more capital investment, especially in rural infrastructure and cultivating the land, and that's partly happening.  What I'm very concerned about is that recent information suggests that more and more of these large scale investments are concerned with the production of energy rather than the production of food. That may create some jobs and some foreign exchange but it will not reduce hunger in Africa. The current hunger situation needs to be addressed by increased productivity, better seeds, more fertilizer and better finance, largely in the small farm sector. The land grabbers, those who really take land away from small farmers, typically in alliance with local political leaders, should think about the long term investments which they can make, together with small farm communities.

Interview: Asumpta Lattus

Editor: Daniel Pelz

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