Thursday, July 23, 2009

Global land grab, agricolonialism

Last week the Inquirer had a front-page story, “S. Korea leases 94,000ha in Mindoro; agri execs surprised”. It coincided with the July 2009 cover story of World Mission Magazine (“The Global Land Grab”) whose cover blurb says: “Huge amounts of farmland in poor nations are being bought or leased. The Philippines is on the map as a lease hotspot.”

World Mission (WM) is a Catholic monthly published by the Comboni Missionaries “as part of their ministry and program of missionary awareness in Asia.” It is not a pietistic publication. It deals with world social issues (hunger, poverty, disease, the environment, inspiring persons, religious dialogue) as well as spirituality and faith in these times. I know WM’s editor, Fr. Jose Antonio M. Rebelo MCCJ ( and I’ve written a couple of articles for his feisty magazine. It is very well designed too.

The Mindoro story caught many by surprise, government officials among them. They were caught napping. The news said “A southwestern province in South Korea has leased 94,000 hectares of farmland in Mindoro to grow 10,000 tons of corn a year for feed for 25 years…And the South Korean province wants to lease more land in its efforts to cut costs.

“South Korea, the world’s third largest buyer of corn for food and feed, imported 7.5 million tons of corn for feed in 2008, and is one of several nations, from China to the Middle East, seeking farmland abroad after steep food price inflation last year highlighted the need for more food security. Jeonman Feedstock Ltd. has leased about 94,000 ha. of farmland in Mindoro to grow low-cost grain for feed production…”

From the Inquirer Research Dept. was a sidebar backgrounder on a Fil-Japan venture that would allow a Japanese company to use “at least 600,000 hectares of land in the Philippines for biofuel production in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.” There were talks with Qatar and China but because of protests the Dept. of Agriculture suspended plans to allow China to use 1.24 million hectares of Philippine farmland. Pres. Arroyo, during her trip to Qatar last year, reportedly opened talks for the lease of at least 100,000 hectares to the emirate.

OMG! Before you know it we’ve been taken over by other nations. Agricolonialism, anyone? Food security and sovereignty for sale? WM quotes Joachim von Braun, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, as saying “There is a major lack of transparency in these land deals.”

In the Philippines, who is monitoring and regulating these deals? It is obvious that this is not a sexy issue, so will our lawmakers bother to spend time and investigate? To borrow words from a T-shirt blurb, there is no “katri”, no “hayden camera” in this.

According to WM, European, American and Asian countries and corporations are buying or leasing farmland in poor countries to secure their own food supplies and for the production of biofuels. One of the prime vulnerable targets is Africa as well as poor regions where communities do not even have legal tenure over land. And there are hardly any protests. The exception was Madagascar, WM points out, where the announcement of a 99-year contract to lease 1.3 million hectares to South Korean’s Daewoo Corp. triggered the recent revolution.

More than 20 million hectares of farmland in Africa, Latin America and Asia are now held by foreign governments and companies. Rich countries with not enough land could always buy their way into their poor neighbor’s properties.

That many of these agricultural ventures are for biofuel production poses another problem. We have been enamored with supposedly eco-friendly biofuels (I use E-10), but have we looked into how they are produced? How much environmental biodiversity will be sacrificed for the mono-crops? What happens to the food farms? How will local communities be affected?

Rich nations can’t eat biofuel. They also want to secure their own food supply and food market. As these rich nations’ food resources dwindle they scramble to find ways to meet their needs. This is not to say to them, drink your gasoline. We are all citizens of the same planet and Planet Earth’s resources should be shared by all, but not at the expense of the poor and powerless.

Questions need to be asked. Are these deals violating people’s existing rights enshrined in our laws and in the constitution? Are they trampling on the indigenous people’s culture and traditions? Will threatened communities succumb to vague promises of jobs and infrastructures? Will the deals really trigger economic growth?

And after the lease period is over, and the land has been robbed of its biodiversity and substance because of mono-cropping and GMO-farming, after the once rich and fertile vastness has been laid to waste, what happens?

In same issue of WM, Fr. Sean McDonagh, internationally known ecologist and author who spent more than 20 years in the Philippines (I have written about him several times), warns of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the famine they could cause. GMOs are not the solution to feed the hungry world, they will bring more trouble.

I wish our politicians could get hold of the latest WM issue on the global land grab. And by the way, in this issue, there is a great article on Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania, whose cause for beatification has been started. It is a good read, too, for heavy breathing, moist-eyed presidential wanna-bes and for those who want to lead humbly and well.