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Conflicts for land or water are not a new phenomenon; however, the kind that I will analyze in this article is relatively recent, as only in 2008 it started to be identified and studied. History shows us that the causes of colonialism, apart from demographic spreads and imperialist feelings from authorities, were related to economic development. Industries needed inputs and resources, and in most cases, this issue was resolved with the process of conquering foreign nations and “spaces”. Nowadays, land grabbing resembles this. It is the occurrence within which some countries, in recent and present times, obtain foreign land to exploit it. The reasons behind this are many; part of them is regarding obtaining the control of the land for agriculture, cultivations, or the presence of resources such as fuels and metals; others regard the presence of water resources; in particular this last sort of “grabbing” is called “water grabbing”, and it is perhaps a less known circumstance.

The factors influencing the necessity of land and water grabbing are often geographical. What influences agriculture and economic activity the most, are natural factors such as the soil, the climate, and the presence of valuable resources. The market, the technologies, the society, and the political regime, of course, play a huge role, but at the extent to explain two different forms of grabbing, they will be momentarily put aside.

What has to be distinguished is the difference between grabbing from a developed country, for gaining further wealth or resources, and the grabbing between underdeveloped nations. This latter phenomenon generates conflicts that go beyond what it is considered “land or water grabbing”; this generates conflicts, or even wars, merely for survival.

When we deal with grabbing from developed countries, on the other hand, the nations-objects to the acquisitions are often in the South part of the world, namely Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, and Latin America.  It is counted that at least 41 developed countries are expropriators and at least 62 countries are the ones whose land gets stolen. Often these phenomena are hidden behind “responsible investments”, the ones defined to help developing countries to improve their access to resources. In reality, the grabbing, both for water or land, permits economic powers to gain control or to deviate precious resources towards their advantage, subtracting local communities or entire nations their valuable supplies. Responsible investments, instead, contribute to reduce poverty in the country where they are made and favor development and advancements for the communities. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), for instance, visions investments from developed into underdeveloped nations for achieving the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular the ones aiming at no poverty and zero hunger.

Land grabbing for agriculture or any kind of grabbing does not however provide any of these advantages. Often the nations themselves, object to the grabbing, cede their non-title lands of their citizens to the “investors”, as are desperate for development; they believe they will guarantee better living conditions and incomes for the rural communities, and that they will satisfy internal necessities of the populations. The promises of investors are often so attractive from their perspective that, for them, renouncing is not even an option to be considered.

Behind “land grabbing”, power nations can promise communities and entire nations several givebacks, such as the construction of hospitals and schools,  employment opportunities, and better lives. However, promises are most likely not fulfilled; on the contrary, these guarantees of new infrastructure or social services for the communities are not realized and moreover, workers are displaced from their homes and paid an amount which is considered to bring further extreme poverty; an amount, according to the World Bank, which workers are morally obliged to accept, but that is way less than the very minimum that should be offered. Besides, these investments often allow developed nations to escape tax provisions, environmental obligations, and pollution standards that are common in more advanced areas, resulting in even more appealing investments from their perspective. A key factor in understanding this spreading needs to land grabbing and delocalization of food production is the need for an incredible amount of resources because of the concomitant world food crises. As the world population is growing and the food choices of the West are changing towards a more Western type of diet, which requires more resources and inputs to be produced, the world’s necessities for agricultural products are increasing and the capacity of producing them in the same regions is, at the same time, decreasing. Demographic surges, urbanizations, and climate change are diminishing the agricultural capacity of countries and more and more products are, simultaneously, needed. This consequently leads countries to look for solutions elsewhere, specifically in underdeveloped countries where resources are not exploited at their maximum level.

Water grabbing, instead, is different but closely interrelated. 70% of all human usage of water is for agricultural purposes; and 22% is for industrial reasons. While agricultural and industrial services are increasing more and more, the household water requirements are also escalating quickly. The rise of the population of developing nations, as well as industrialization and climate crises, add to the increasing requirements, resulting in the fact that, for developed countries, the present scarcity of it seems, more than ever, a challenging issue. The high level of interdependence between water, energy, and, as stated before, agricultural production, made countries cruelly rush at the search for it, so that when an investor grabs land needed for agriculture or to gain resources for energy production, often rushes for water as well. In parallel with the one for land then, water grabbing is similarly a worrying phenomenon that it is spreading intensively, at the expense of the weakest populations. 

The World Bank has a major role in the picture to play; by financing many of these investments in the past, it has gained considerably high criticism. It has now recognized its power to be able to do something about this and launched a scheme called, Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA) project, that, officially, tries to privatize land in the Global South for positive purposes.

The project, financed by the US and UK governments, both strong supporters of corporate agriculture, introduced a land indicator, that reveals each government’s regulations on agricultural investments affecting the livelihood of farmers in foreign countries. However, according to many experts, this scheme just completely ignores the reality that the expropriating is having on communities and nations, regarding poverty, access to food, water, and basic resources, and many other fundamental rights, and just allow further land and water grabbing. Whereas the World Bank claims that the intentions behind the project are to enhance productivity, to protect the right of land, and to bring more equity in its access. However, the prescription of the scheme seems to be just wrong – the scheme that should allow for the positive reallocation of land, key solutions for increasing food production, and contemporarily lift communities out of poverty, it is centered on promoting “capital intensive agriculture”.

More effective intensive work that tries to stop these phenomena to happen has been made. First of all, the studies show how access to land is a fundamental human right, associated with human survival. All members of a given society, equal in dignity, nature, and rights provided, should be given access to their land, and to space, work, food, and water that this land delivers. It has been held that redistributing land more equitably, and think about an effective strategy for investments, truly functional to enhance poverty reduction and basic access to resources, is needed. Often win-win strategies exist, for both developed and underdeveloped nations, which allow that stronger investors to not abuse their power, but still to be profitable. In particular, limits given by governments and effective tools of global governance should be used. Making globally clear and transparent binding acts and general guidelines and standards regulating land acquisitions are essential. These acts, however, cannot be made by societies and countries destroyed by the grabbing. Even with political will from these nations, they cannot “compete” with the most powerful ones. The strengthening of their rights must come from the international level and it must arise rapidly. This issue is worrying, and there are other options available. Basic human rights cannot be denied, and investors acting without any consideration for the environment and the social impacts of their grabbing must be punished and stopped.

Thenceforth, what is mostly needed is political courage from the decision-makers that can regulate this “hidden” land and water market.

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