Yesterday, Earth Day, the United Nations recognized the central role of women farmers in feeding the world. The speakers at a special event on this subject were not the usual diplomats and experts, but instead dynamic and outspoken women farmers from a number of countries. They told the large audience that the majority of the world’s food is produced by smallholders, not by large, industrial farms. Also, they affirmed that women run the great majority of smallholder farms.
Increasingly, the women food producers have formed regional and international networks and they have developed considerable political clout. They have pressed their governments for more favorable policies, such as rights to own land, rights to inherit land, access to credit, and other policies that are favorable to the small producer and to environmentally-friendly production practices. This is an impressive global political movement that intersects the rising movements of smallholders generally – led by organizations such as La Via Campesina.
But for all the impressive self-organization of the peasant farmers, and the justice they seek, the entire rural system they represent is under threat as never before.
Agribusiness companies and investors are buying up large blocks of land, gambling that food prices will soon rise and land prices will skyrocket. Financiers everywhere are piling into this new investment game and they are assembling vast investment pools to do it. This process, known as “land grabbing,” has been well-documented by the organization “GRAIN.” Sometimes, governments bring in the military or armed police forces and simply expel the peasants from the land, claiming they have no clear “title.” In other cases, the pressure is more subtle, but the results are the same. The world is heading into a brave new world of techno-farming.
These land-grab farms are nothing to celebrate. The multi-billion dollar profits for Wall Street investors come with enormous social, environmental and nutritional cost. Hundreds of millions of people will be expelled from the land and forced to migrate into urban slums. Rainforests will be cut down. Unsustainable agricultural practices will proliferate.
To make it all seem fair and reasonable, the World Bank is now issuing a set of new rules that supposedly take care of the problems. But these rules do little but provide an imprimatur of “responsible” investment. It is clear that the rules were written by and for Wall Street and that they will do virtually nothing to stem the tide of peasant displacement and agro-industrialization. Already, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, land equivalent to the size of France has been seized and this is only the beginning.
Those interested in seeing the land grabbers in their native habitat can sign up for a conference on May 6-7, at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Entitled “Global AgInvesting 2010,” the conference will promote this “emerging asset class for private and institutional investors.” “Endowments and foundations” are especially encouraged to attend, says the advertisement on the internet.
So, on Earth Day plus one, we need to ask: what can stop this speculative juggernaut? And how can we support the rural farm communities – half of our humankind - who are fighting for sustainable food production. We all have a stake in the outcome.