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U.N. food expert: Big land grabs need regulation

A growing worldwide land rush, especially in Latin America and Africa, is having a negative impact on the local and indigenous people, many of whom are poor farming families, said José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), via videoconference from the World Food Meetings in Rome Oct. 19.

His discussion was the keynote talk of the Second International Conference on Global Land Grabbing that welcomed nearly 200 academics, development experts, policymakers and activists from 32 countries (see sidebar) to campus Oct. 17-19.

As enormous land investments are made by government-backed companies, national and international corporations, individuals and asset management funds, local famers lose rights, in many cases because they don't "own" their land in the Western sense of the word. Governments often do not recognize ownership, and even in regions where governments recognize the rights of local farmers, countries lack the means to protect ownership.

Cornell involvement

Cornell contributed to the Land Grabbing II conference in several ways. Universitywide, the topic tied directly into Cornell's land-grant and international missions. Wendy Wolford, the Polson Professor of Development Sociology, along with Charles Geisler, professor of development sociology, were primary organizers. The conference was supported in part by Cornell's David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. The Institute for the Social Sciences' Contested Land project team, which belongs to the Land Deals Politics Initiative that organized the conference, hosted a welcome reception Oct. 17.

And more than a dozen researchers from across campus participated:

Raymond Craib, history, who chaired a panel on "Commercialization and Joint Ventures";

Marion Dixon, development sociology, "The Corporate Standard and the Reproduction of the Dominant Class in Egypt";

Upik Djalins, development sociology, "Lessons Learned From a Colonial Land Grab in Banjoewangi, East Java, 1909-39";

Charles Geisler, development sociology, who chaired a panel on "Conflict: Conflict and Post-Conflict Grabs";

Lauren Honig, government, "State Land Transfers and Local Authorities in Zambia";

Fouad Makki, development sociology, who chaired a panel on "Justifying Land Deals: Policy Narratives";

Phil McMichael, development sociology, "Land Grab Security Mercantilism: Challenge to the Trade Regime?";

Sudeshna Mitra, city and regional planning, "Contested Desires: Making Peri-urban 'Global Cities' through Land Grabs in India";

Paul Nadasdy, anthropology, who chaired a panel on "Violence and Narco-Grabs";

Jon Parmenter, history, who chaired a panel on "Underlying Resource Grabs: Mining and Infrastructure;"

Mindi Schneider, development sociology, "'We Will Feed Ourselves!' Food Security Politics in Post-Reform China"; and

Steven Wolf, natural resources, "Critical Analysis of Categories Implicated in Assessment of Land Grabs: an Empirical Perspective From the Adirondacks in New York State."

Da Silva emphasized the importance of land ownership to a person's identity, noting that land is tied to the "belonging of an individual to his community [and] his social and political identity." Because families can no longer produce their own food for lack of land, large-scale agriculture poses a threat to global food security, he said.

To mitigate this threat, da Silva said, principles for responsible agricultural investment are needed, which include measures designed to protect food security and local development. After a spike in food supplies in 2007-08, the FAO began trying to secure local supplies rather than rely on volatile foreign markets, da Silva noted.

Recently, after a debate involving representatives from 130 countries, the UN's Committee on World Food Security established guidelines designed to respect the rights of indigenous families.

To raise awareness about land grabbing and protect local peoples, da Silva suggested three strategies. First, information on large-scale land use must be made public, so that academics can research the issue. Second, as the presence of foreign companies increases in a country, we must be aware of the political implications. Last, organizations like the FOA must enable nations to exercise more control over their people's food security.

Many audience members questioned the ability of any organization to enforce food security guidelines. Da Silva said that it is the cooperative process of achieving these guidelines, more than their achievement, that is important. This process will be different for each country, as each has unique political issues and parties, he added.

The FAO is working with partners in the government and private sectors to establish food security, a goal that calls for more government regulation of large-scale agriculture. "It is a society," da Silva said, and not one group, "that decides to eradicate hunger."

The conference was organized by the Land Deals Politics Initiative and hosted by Cornell's Department of Development Sociology.

Sarah Byrne '15 is a student intern for the Cornell Chronicle.


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