Part 2: Land concentration or land grabbing?

stop landgrabbing

This is part 2 of a special series on landgrabbing by Eco Ruralis.

 Part 1: New report on Land grabbing by Eco Ruralis

Written by: Marion Minaud, Land Rights Intern at Eco Ruralis

On the 17th of June 2015, a COMAGRI (Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development) meeting was held to present and debate the results of a Transnational Institute (TNI) study commissioned by the EU Parliament, namely “Extent of farmland grabbing in the EU”. After reading the report, the EU Commission representatives objected that the expression “land grabbing” was over used and should rather be replaced by “land concentration”. So what’s the difference? 

Land concentration refers to the control of important areas of land by a few dominant actors in particular areas. From a Romanian perspective, the government itself is committed to reducing the numbers of small holdings. The rhetoric argues that peasants would allegedly be less productive than the big companies and their numbers should be considerably reduced. However no independent study has ever proved the greater efficiency of the corporate enterprises in providing food security, if not the contrary.

For instance, land concentration occurs when a farmer retires and sells his land to another entity. The latter, if buying (or leasing) enough land from several locals, can have the control over a considerable number of hectares thus concentrating its land ownership.

See here for Eco Ruralis on Farm Succession

While land concentration is part of land grab, its not the only dimension. With land grabbing, there are scale, human rights and environmental considerations too.

Physical violence does not necessarily accompany land grabbing. Nowadays subtle political and economical powerplays put an immense pressure on peasant communities. Politically speaking, in Romania, multinational investors benefit from the weak protection of small farmers. In January 2014, a law authorising any European citizens and companies to buy land in Romania made matters worse. Already, there were  many options for purchase possibilities during a so called moratorium on land sales. Also, European subsidies encouraged this situation with one percent of the Romanian farmers receiving half of the subsidies. This completely unbalances the market and purchasing power of small vs large farmers.

Corporate enterprises can tempt financially stretched peasant farmers, one by one, with their greater economic clout.

Farmers under pressure either sell or lease their land, sometimes with no awareness of the contract terms, which makes it very difficult to change later. Moreover, after getting control of the land, companies generally do not create the number of jobs expected – nor is there any compulsion on them to do so.

And environmentally, these companies usually consolidate farms into larger, in fact huge mega farms with monocultural crops reliant on agrochemical inputs, which damages  local resources and reduces biodiversity.

Let’s unpack the terms – concentration vs grabbing – in more detail, using the Agrocereal Carani case. This company, owned by Aton GmbH, a German group, farms a whopping 16 000 ha of cereals, legumes and oilseed plants mostly in Timis county, south-west of Romania. From a concentration point of view, the reduction of employees per hectare would probably be recognised but seen as more productive, in narrowly economistic terms.

However when shifting to the land grabbing perspective, the figures take on a different meaning: 364 vs 2.02.

One permanent employee would account for 364 hectares while a traditional Romanian peasant farm has an average of 2.02 hectares. This peasant farm also involves several family members, so ultimately employs more people again than Agrocereal Carani. Locals renting or selling their land to Agrocereal Carani also allege that they did not receive any compensation in return.

Thus, we see the emergence of a land sovereignty movement, where land is not considered a commodity but rather a public good and a human right.

Officially in Romania, foreign investors control 8.5% of the arable land. However the lack of transparency on the real landownership of the companies obviously blurs this figure, not to mention hidden investment funds involved in speculating on land prices.

Eco Ruralis believes that the recognition of the land grabbing phenomenon occurring in Romania would be a first step towards efficient preventive political decisions for fair access to land. In a recent effort to create transparency, the organization will soon launch an interactive map, highlighting top land grabbing cases from Romania.

Land concentration then, is a sanitised term which too easily brushes over the scale, human rights and environmental problems which accompany land grabbing.

Spoiler alert for the EU Commission: you will see a lot of concentrated dots on our new map, but they are large land grabbing cases.

Written by: Marion Minaud, Land Rights Intern at Eco Ruralis