Commentary | Who’s hungry?

Grabbing land to feed… the rich

Article updated November 4, 2013, November 9, 2013.

The first of a two-part series – read part two here.

“This area is known as a bread basket,” says Ella Haley, a resident, activist, and professor at Athabasca University. She’s referring to Brant County, which lies southwest of Toronto, just a 30-minute drive from Hamilton. “It has very fertile farming communities.”

That is, until recently.

In 2005, Ontario delineated one of the world’s largest greenbelts around Toronto, restricting development on prime farmland in the hopes of preserving farmland and conserving nature. Brant County, and other nearby counties like Simcoe, Niagara, and Wellington, happen to be just outside of it. Since then, many local farmers have sold their land and become millionaires.

Now, one community in the county, Langford, is dotted with what Haley calls ‘agri-slums’:  whole acres of farmland where heritage barns are bulldozed and prime farmland is deteriorated. A development corporation by the name of Walton International, Inc. has various development plans to transform the county for good.

When farm-land, especially one of Canada’s breadbaskets, is taken over for housing, [it] can have serious ramifications for an already precarious food system.

When word of the land sales reached community members, many were concerned about the lack of consultation. A petition was signed by a coalition of Mohawk activists, a United Church minister, and environmentalists. Walton’s plans went on, largely unhindered. Presentations to council didn’t do much either. One particularly meticulous resident, David Langer, started digging up the fine print.

Over the phone, Haley guides me through one of the documents Langer had posted online. It’s from the Ontario Land Registry, listing the shareholders of a Walton-affiliated purchase.

“This is very strange,” observes Haley. “Usually, when you sell a farm you sell to an individual, or you sell to a couple. But in this case, this farm is broken up into 663 shares,” Haley says. This is no usual development project; people from all over the world – Singapore, Malaysia, and Germany – are buying in to these shares, even though they won’t be planning on living there.

But what’s the issue? The land banking company, with the help of its investors, buys up property, proposes development on the land to the municipality, and then as the development is approved, land value increases. That doesn’t seem so bad.

The problem, Haley thinks, is that this kind of speculation and development ends up being worse for local communities. “What you’ll see is that land bankers and speculators are coming to Brant County because land is cheaper, because they’re outside the green belt. When they buy it, they keep it as farms until they want it. This leads to ‘agri-slums.’”

Sometimes it’s large corporations and foreign shareholders that buy up land. Sometimes it’s whole governments like China or South Korea that invest in land to secure food access in the future.

From fertile to fallow land. The development of massive tracts of land has another side effect, says Haley. Given the current economy, it’s easy to import fresh foods from abroad. But with recent oil price spikes and global food crises, that kind of cheap food may not always be available. “Food security means ‘do we have enough food?’ But food sovereignty is: ‘can we grow what we want, where we want? Can we grow it locally?’” When farm-land, especially one of Canada’s breadbaskets, is taken over for housing, this can have serious ramifications for an already precarious food system.

Brant County, it turns out, isn’t alone. People all over the world are experiencing similar enormous land acquisitions. In some cases, the land they live on is sold from under their feet overnight by international investors. “The plunder of Brant County’s foodland,” says Haley, can be linked to a global trend: land grabbing.

* * *

It’s hard to talk about land grabs without talking about GRAIN, a small non-profit organization working to support small farms worldwide. GRAIN’s mission is to support people’s control of their own food production – food sovereignty – and to maintain biodiversity throughout the world. By supporting and connecting small farmers, social movements, researchers, and grassroots movements, they strive to develop a network all over the world to fight against large agri-businesses.

In 2008, GRAIN started to notice reports of governments and companies travelling across the world to acquire huge swaths of land. As they say in one 2013 article, “The sheer number of such reports signalled something new; we had not seen this intensity of investor interest in farmland before, and in our view it was a reaction to the food crisis and the financial crisis of that same year.”

GRAIN quickly published a report, Seized! The 2008 land grab for food and financial security, and in so doing, initiated a global wave of activism, protest, and research to fight the phenomenon.

Land grabbing, explains Claire Lagier, who works for GRAIN and is completing a masters in Environmental Science at UQAM, is a complex process. Each case is different. Like in Brant County, sometimes it’s large corporations and foreign shareholders that buy up land. Sometimes it’s whole governments like China or South Korea that invest in land to secure food access in the future. “There’s a lot of very fertile land that’s being bought,” says Lagier, “especially in Africa, in countries where land rights are very poorly defined.”

It’s not just foreign nations and investors that are buying up land. Canadians are doing it too.

But again, what’s the issue? Why should we be worried?

Lagier explains that land grabbing often ends up harming local communities more than it might be intended to help them.

“[For example] there’s a lot of countries where women are traditionally, culturally, in charge of producing palm oil, processing it, and selling it on markets. Then these companies come and negotiate with the chiefdom to either buy the land or lease the land for 100 years. They install palm monoculture. Within five years you have no traditional small production sector, because it’s been replaced by large-scale production. All these women who had their income derived from this, suddenly don’t have anything any more. When women lose their financial independence they receive all kinds of abuse, entering prostitution systems, derived of poverty, violence, gendered violence.”

When lands are seen as common, women tend to support their families through subsistence farming. Take away that common land, privatize it, and the wages received from working on these plantations will not be nearly enough. Whole communities are affected, and sometimes they put up resistance.

“You have some cases of grabbings where [there is] a private security or local police force that comes, and if they meet any resistance to the grab that they’re doing, they will intimidate people, and they will kill peasant leaders and social movement leaders to intimidate resistance and to get people to stop organizing,” explains Lagier.

It’s not just foreign nations and investors that are buying up land. Canadians are doing it too, even though they might not know it. “Pension funds and investment funds are some of the biggest players of the financial industry, and in the past five to ten years they’ve been investing about $15 billion in land, which is expected to double by 2015. It’s something that’s growing really fast right now.”

What’s confusing about land grabbing is whether it’s a recent phenomenon, unique to the past decade, or actually a continuation of older processes.

“La Caisse de dépot et placement, which is the biggest pension fund in Quebec, just announced last year that they will be investing some money that they’re managing for unions into a company created in Brazil to acquire land. That means it’s a first instance of a Canadian pension fund investing [in land grabs]. We also learned very recently that the Canada Pension Plan has also just made its first investment in farmland. It’s a very new trend of Canadian pension funds to do this.”

These funds are being used to buy up largely forested or ‘unused’ land, in the hopes that they will produce some profit in the future. And it’s only increasing, says Lagier. “This is a gold rush that is happening with farmland all over the world, but especially in Africa and some parts of South America and Southeast Asia.” GRAIN says that 60 countries have been targeted, and Oxfam estimates that 33 million hectares (about eight times the size of the Netherlands) have been leased or sold since 2001, and about 60 per cent of the projects are in Africa. It’s clear that land grabbing is a global trend that is on the rise, with little to stop it.

This all sounds very familiar. Foreign investors buying up huge swaths of land? People claiming that locals aren’t ‘efficient’ or ‘productive’ enough and are mismanaging the land? Taking advantage of local legal structures for the sake of profit? Violently taking people’s land and then forcing them to work on it? It bears a really strong resemblance to the history books, particularly the chapters on early colonialism.

What’s confusing about land grabbing is whether it’s a recent phenomenon, unique to the past decade, or actually a continuation of older processes, like the large-scale privatization of land that happened when Europeans colonized other continents. The next part of this series will delve into that question by considering how the two are linked, why they’re different, and how colonialism continues to this day. I will also show what people all over the world, but especially in Canada, are doing to fight it.


A Bite of Food Justice is a column discussing inequity in the food system while critiquing contemporary ideals of sustainability. Aaron Vansintjan can be reached at foodjustice@mcgilldaily.com.


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