Land Grabs for Food, Flowers and Fuel

This summary by Margaret Flowers comes from a session at the Democracy Convention in Madison, WI on August 26, 2011. It informs about the history of corporate power and the land grabs for food and fuel.


Jim Tarbell – Alliance for Democracy

Jim Goodman – Family Farm Defenders


The history of corporate powers and how corporations can buy millions of acres of land around the world and use it to grow crops for energy instead of for food.

David Ricardo wrote the “Theory of Free International Trade.” He was the son of an extremely wealthy London stockbroker at the height of the British Empire. The rules written were from the perspective of wealthy stock owners, based on the way the world works for the wealthy.  Look at his assumptions – early 1800’s, thought land and resources would go on forever, never considered depletion. He assumed 99% of the population would always be in poverty, and the system was set up to keep them that way. He assumed everything on the planet was for sale and anybody could go and take whatever they want. In reality, the practices of the British Empire are not those of the rest of the world.

The US developed with protective markets in the war of 1812, when we developed our industrial capacity. [Aside: Lowell, MA has a park that talks about corporate power (the only one).] Almost all countries have developed with protective trade policies that said develop your own markets first and then open them up. They protected against big money because money was power.

The Queen of England chartered the first multinational corporation, the East India Company, in 1601. It was a restricted charter that only allowed it to do certain things. The British knew they needed to control it. The role of corporations was to bring capital together for a particular project. The first trading companies had their own armies and ran the trade.

The American Revolution was a revolt against huge corporations. After the American Revolution, we had tight restrictions on corporate growth and power –how long they could exist, etc. A charter was a privilege given by the sovereign people. Alexander Hamilton was the voice of old money power. John Marshall and he moved a federalist agenda to keep money in power and degrade the power of the people. John Marshall was chief justice. He said that corporations were not a privilege; they were a contract between government and corporations. This moved on to corporate personhood decisions by judges in 1800s which gave corporations rights. Then we moved to the re-establishment of liberal economics. Neo-liberal trade policies refer to David Ricardo and what he advocated. These policies are used to say that money is power and to direct trade around the world.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) and North American Free trade Agreement (NAFTA) came about within a short time period. They made it so corporations didn’t just have the rights of people, but suddenly they were equal or stronger than governments. If corporations think a law, such as those protecting endangered species or health, is a barrier to trade, they can say it is an unfair law and sue the government. This is done in a secret tribunal which is run by people who work for the World Bank and the US Chamber of commerce. Under WTO, it is a country suing a country. Under NAFTA, it is corporations suing the government. Corporations are directly in charge. That is why we find ourselves here. This is the legal structure and economic structure that we live under.

Today, countries and corporations are buying huge tracts of land all over the world. The Middle East is buying land in Africa to produce food for their countries. Others are buying land in Africa to produce bio-fuels. They are taking land away from the people who farmed it and pushing them into the streets. This is a huge problem. Jim Goodman was in Africa last spring and stayed with people in South Sudan just after it became an independent country. The Nile Trading Company, Houston-based, made a deal with a local group to get a forty-nine year lease for up to 2.5 million acres which allowed them to exploit all of the natural resources of that area. The new government came in and a committee voiced their concerns to the state governor and president of the new republic. They said that we the people unambiguously and with strong terms condemn, disavow and deny the land use agreement. The president of the county said to the people that it had to be addressed according to their will and disavowed the whole thing.

Throughout history people took land through land-grabs. Scotland was cleared by the British in a similar manner. This is not a new concept. It happened in Middle East, Africa, Vietnam, and the US for resources. It has been the source of a constant struggle throughout history.

It is continuing today. Land grabs are for economic power, food, bio-fuels and to build empire. There is still a lot of government involvement. It also occurs with investors who are looking to make money. After the global food crises, the concept of grabbing land to produce and sell food and flowers for huge profits became very attractive to corporations. [The speaker referred to a photo of starving people with a beautiful flower farm in the background.]

In past year with the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia sees the surrounding uprisings and knows it needs to keep its people happy. When people are starving, they will revolt. The Saudis don’t want that to happen, so they are buying land to make food for people. Africa is a good target and needs money, so they sell land cheap or lease it. Africa is much cheaper than in Brazil or US. Countries are basically giving the land away. In return, they get jobs and infrastructure. Farmers are pushed off their land and then hired at low wages to work it. In Mali, the land taken could be 127,000 farms and created only 1,000 jobs in return. US universities are investing in this, which is not ethical.

Ethiopia has large numbers of people who are starving but they are still selling land to grow flowers that are exported to EU. India is burning grasslands and forest to grow bio-fuel. China is investing to feed people, but they are more interested in monetary gain. They want to find ways to make money by speculation in land. South Korea has investments in the US. They want to create their own grain processors and deal directly with US farmers.

Land grabs are happening in US, EU, and Australia. Farmers still own the land and control what they grow. But do they really? They don’t determine markets and don’t control what they grow. 85% corn and 95% of soybeans are GMO. Farmers can’t get seed for non-GMO products. Famers do whatever the industry says they have to in order to make the most profit. If they don’t, they can’t get into market because it is determined by contracts with the processors who decide what they will buy.

Small farmers are in trouble because they can’t get loans. Banks say they have to use accepted practices which include growing GMO products. Some of this is changing now with organic products. Farmers have to pay for insurance, and they get a discount if they use GMO products.

Aquifers are being drained and chemicals are being added to the water and land. Technology always fails. Fertilizers are poisoning us. Weeds are becoming resistant. We now find out that hand weeding is the most effective method, after years of having products like Round-Up pushed upon us.

Jim Goodman says, “Farming the way it is being pushed is self-destructive. Farmers feel they have no choice but to compete in that system. This seems to have brought out the worst in corporations and governments and the way they collude. We may be the last generation.”


A lot of young people want to get into farming, local small farms – land values make it difficult, $3000/acre. Can’t get into the business unless you know somebody or have family in it. Government regulations for CSAs make it impossible, put small farmers out of business because they can’t comply. Farmers can start by selling in farmers markets.  Big local efforts are underway to connect families with land, farmers and people who want to farm and creating local distribution hubs. CSA farms are training centers for young people who want to farm. We really need vocational training in things that really matter like farming. CSAs are starting to join forces so they have more products to offer or developing greenhouses and root cellars to sell year-round. OCA is starting GreenPolkaDotBox.Com – bulk sales of organic food delivered free. CSAs can use similar model of joining together and a person orders what they want online and then picks it up. Need local family farm organic distribution networks.

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