Should rich countries be buying agricultural land in developing countries? That question is raised in a report issued last year by the Land Matrix Partnership, a consortium of European research institutes and non-governmental organisations.
The report shows that, since 2000, investors or state bodies in rich or emerging countries have bought more than 83 million hectares of agricultural land in poorer developing countries. Most of these purchases have been in Africa, with two-thirds in countries where hunger is widespread and institutions for establishing formal land ownership are often weak.
It has been claimed that foreign investors are purchasing land that has been left idle. But the report found this is not the case: roughly 45 per cent of the purchases involved existing croplands, and almost a third of the purchased land was forested, indicating that its development may pose risks for biodiversity.
The investments are private and public and come from three groups: emerging economies like China, India, Brazil and South Africa; oil-rich Gulf states; and wealthy economies.
Most of the investments are aimed at producing food or other crops for export. More than 40 per cent of such projects aim to export food to the source country - suggesting food security is a major factor.
Oxfam International calls some of these deals "land grabs". In a report, it says that, since 2008, communities affected by World Bank projects have brought 21 formal complaints alleging violations of land rights. Oxfam has called on the bank to freeze investments until it can set standards to protect rights. It also wants the bank to ensure the deals do not undermine local or national food security.
One may ask whether the requirement that local landholders consent to a sale is enough to protect people living in poverty. Supporters of free markets will argue it is up to the landowners to decide. But, given the pressures of poverty and the lure of cash, what does it take for people to be able to make a genuinely free and informed choice about something as significant as a right to land?
The World Bank may be more concerned about local landholders' rights than other foreign investors are. If so, the 21 complaints are probably the visible tip of a vast iceberg of violations by foreign investors.
One such case belatedly came to the attention of the UN Human Rights Committee. In November, it concluded that Germany had failed to police the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe regarding its complicity in the forced eviction of villages in Uganda to make way for a coffee plantation. But the evictions took place in 2001, and the villagers are still living in extreme poverty. Are we to believe that landholders fare better with Chinese or Saudi investors?
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Copyright: Project Syndicate