"Land grabbing" is the controversial practice of governments or companies buying up, or leasing, large tracts of land in developing countries—often without the consent of people living and working there—in order to have access to their unspoiled natural resources.
Since 2000, for instance, outside investors have acquired about 5% of all the agricultural territory in Africa. And some countries have been particularly affected: About 30% of Liberia is said to have been snapped up, for example. But it’s a problem you probably don’t know about. A new website, the Land Matrix—chock full of maps and infographics—hopes to make the problem more real.
The rate of deal-making reached a peak during the worldwide food shortages of 2007 to 2008, as countries sought security amid rising prices, and investors saw an opportunity to make speculation-sized returns. Perhaps the most notorious project involved Daewoo, the state-owned South Korean company, buying up 1.3 million hectares on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, a deal that was later canceled after widespread protests.
The problem, as critics see it, is not necessarily one of illegality. As Mike Taylor, of the International Land Coalition says, many of the transactions come about because "governments are desperate to attract investment, especially to rural areas where there is often little investment."
The controversy springs from the anomalous ownership of the land, which is technically held by the state, but in practice has been used by local people for centuries. Campaigners say the deals have often been made without those people’s consent, and behind closed doors, where corruption and human rights abuses are more likely.
The aim of the new database created by the International Land Coalition, and other groups, is to shine a light where it may not have been before. It includes details on 1,217 transactions of more than 200 hectares, between 2000 and now. That’s about 83.2 million hectares in all.
"Our thought with this website is to get as much information as we can into the public realm, in a way people can understand, so they can access and contribute to the data," says Taylor.
The site allows people with on-the-ground knowledge to add comments, so campaigners can include new deals, or make adjustments where necessary.
"There’s no doubt that investment is important," says Taylor, "but the question is what type of investment? If it just involves buying large amounts of land, and transferring ownership to a company, it is likely to be harmful. If investors work with locals, it’s more likely to be a win-win."
The hope with the database is that it will discourage governments from selling off ancient farms and forests without proper public participation.