April 15, 2013

Tragedy of the Commons In Reverse

The journalist Fred Pearce writes in The Land Grabbers that his chosen title may seem pejorative, but is descriptively accurate. He defines land grabbing as "any contentious acquisition of large-scale land rights by a foreigner or other 'outsider,' whatever the legal status of the transaction." It's not all bad, he acknowledges, "but it all merits attention." Estimates of the amount of land taken over from indigenous inhabitants varies: The World Bank says 120 million acres, but other groups say a lot more.

Pearce's argument raises vital questions. It also splits the environmental movement wide open:

It is important to know what agribusiness can and cannot deliver. But it is equally important to be angered by the appalling injustice of people having their ancestral land pulled from beneath their feet. And to question the arrogance and ignorance surrounding claims, by home governments and Western investors alike, that huge areas of Africa are "empty" lands only awaiting the magic of foreign hands and foreign capital. And to balk at the patina of virtue that often surrounds environmentalists eagerly taking other people's land in the interests of protecting wildlife. What right do "green grabbers" have to take peasant fields and pastures to grow biofuels, cordon off rich pastures for nature conservation, shut up forests as carbon stores, and fence in wilderness as playpens and hunting grounds for rich sponsors? They are cooking up a "tragedy of the commons" in reverse.
Over the next few decades I believe land grabbing will matter more, to more of the planet's people, even than climate change. The new land rush looks increasingly like a final enclosure of the planet's wild places, a last roundup on the global commons. Is this the inevitable cost of feeding the world and protecting its surviving wildlife? Must the world's billion or so peasants and pastoralists give up their hinterlands in order to nourish the rest of us? Or is this a new colonialism that should be confronted--the moment when localism and communalism fight back? (ix-x)

 Fred Pearce, The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns Earth (Beacon Press, 2012)

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