Special Issue on Land Acquisitions in SE Asia

The journal International Development Policy which is edited at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and is open access has just published a special issue on land acquisitions.

Beside theoretical articles it has a special focus on South-East Asia and the cultivation of industrial crops like rubber.

Martin Keulertz and I have contributed an article about States as Actors in International Argo-Investments where we compare the Gulf States with China and governments in agro exporter nations such as Brazil, Russia and Thailand.

Tropical Agriculture and MENA Food Imports: Conference Summary


Food Import Needs of the Middle East and North Africa, Ecological Risks and New Dimensions of South-South Cooperation with Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia

Barcelona, 29-30 January 2015

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world and its largest net-importer of cereals. Affordable food imports are crucial for its future food security. Countries with tropical agriculture like Brazil are playing an increasing role in MENA food supplies. Apart from policy options to sustainably intensify regional agricultural production, trade will play a crucial role for MENA economies to achieve food security.

‪Given the environmental value and sensitivity of tropical ecosystems sustainable intensification in countries like Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia is crucial. For this reason, King’s College London (KCL), the OCP Policy Center, the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), the Getulyo Vargas Foundation and Wageningen University organized a conference on Tropical Agriculture as ‘Last Frontier’? Food Import Needs of the Middle East and North Africa, Ecological Risks and New Dimensions of South-South Cooperation with Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia”.

The conference was held on 29-30 January 2015 at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB). It provided an interdisciplinary perspective on how …. (for more)

Two Reviews of Oil for Food

The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) and the Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research (JNRPR) have published reviews of Oil for Food by Pete W. Moore and Erika Weinthal respectively.

Both reviews are positive, main suggestions relate to:

a) better clarification of the two main driving forces of Gulf agricultural policies: self-sufficiency concerns and patronage politics

b) more extensive discussion of resource curse theories and Dutch disease phenomena

c) richer analysis of agricultural policies in Syria against the backdrop of the drought of the 2000s, misguided water management and rural neglect in the decade before the civil war

Thanks for reading the book and these very helpful suggestions!

Syria is in fact one of my regrets and it would have deserved more discussion, indeed. Raymond Hinnebusch’s edited volume about Syrian agriculture in the 2000s escaped my attention while writing and Francesca de Châtel’s excellent article in Middle Eastern Studies was not yet published.

In later publications I have dealt with Syria more extensively while spending some time at the American University of Beirut. During the 1990s I studied in Syria and worked there as a tourguide, getting to know the country and its people. What’s happening there right now is truly saddening and one can only hope that Syria’s shameful tragedy will end soon. With a rural population share of 40 percent sustainable policies of rural development would need to be an important aspect of any reconstruction effort.

Three New Books about MENA Food Security

Three new books have been published about food security in the Middle East and North Africa: Jane Harrigan’s The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Food Security in the Middle East, edited by Zahra Babar and Suzi Mirgani (Hurst, 2014) and The Politics of Food Security: Asian and Middle Eastern Strategies, edited by Sara Bazoobandi (Gerlach Press, 2014).

Bazoobandi`s book has emanated out of a conference at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore and compares food security strategies in the MENA with Asian countries like South Korea and China. My own article in the volume is about this topic, others deal with urban agriculture, Japan, and modern food systems in the Asia-Pacific. Particularly interesting is an article about Iranian food security by Nikolay Kozhanov who served as attaché at the Russian embassy in Tehran between 2006 and 2009.

Babars’s and Mirgani’s book entails a number of conceptual studies about the impact of supermarkets on food systems, obesity, Gulf agro-investments in Ethiopia or my own article about historic food regimes and the MENA as well as a variety of case studies about countries like Yemen, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. The book is the outcome of one of the superb workshops and collective research efforts at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University in Qatar.

Like Food Security in the Middle East, Jane Harrigan’s book The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty provides an excellent analysis of food security challenges in the MENA. By coining the term “macro food sovereignty” Harrigan describes multiple efforts of MENA governments to gain direct access and political control over food supplies, if necessary by disregarding market rationalities and economic efficiency. Macro food sovereignty is thus different from trade-based approaches to food security as advised by international bodies like the World Bank. It is also different from the original meaning of the term “food sovereignty” that has focused on the micro level and has been used by advocacy groups like La Via Campesina to call for farmers’ control over their livelihoods and production decisions.

Harrigan provides a rich variety of data and does a great job in analyzing the development discourse about MENA food security. She goes beyond domestic agriculture and foreign agro-investments and embeds her analysis of food security in the broader context of economic development, income distribution and food accessibility. Like in her earlier writings her approach is refreshingly unorthodox and challenges prevalent development paradigms.

Harrigan and I had our differences regarding the extent of Gulf agro-investments and a widespread implementation gap of announced projects. My reading of press reports and some earlier entries in the Land Matrix database certainly would be more skeptical. Some of the mentioned examples like the Qatari investments in Kenya or UAE based Abraaj Capital’s investments in Pakistan have never gotten off the ground. In the current version of the Land Matrix they are in fact categorized as failed. There also have not been specific land for oil deals, although land for infrastructure deals have been proposed.

But when reading Harrigan’s book I also find considerable agreement, for example about the need to favor joint equity projects and contract farming over fully owned plantation projects that are much more likely to alienate local populations. We also seem to be in broad agreement that preemptive displacements can be serious threats and that improved social safety nets need to be part and parcel of food security policies in the MENA. In sum this is a great addition to the growing body of literature about food security in the Middle East that is particularly helpful in linking it to the broader development debate.

Chinese Agro-Investments in Africa

Last month I was at a conference about Chinese agro investments in Africa at SAIS/ Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

Deborah Brautigam differentiated five types of such investments: 1) media myths and false reports; 2) former aid projects that have now been privatized; 3) construction contracts; 4) government projects that were launched more than a decade ago; and 5) real, current projects.

There are only a few current projects in the category 5) and they target food production for the domestic African market, not for export to China, which would not make commercial sense for logistical reasons.

Like in the case of the Gulf countries there is a certain disconnect with media reports and their inflated numbers about land grabs.

That having said China has recently shown strong interest in food related investments, but they have focused on the trading and food processing sectors with a view of improving food safety and catering to the increasingly diverse diets of the Chinese population.

Among such investments have been Tnuva, the Israeli cheese and consumer foods supplier, US pork producer Smithfield Foods, the UK breakfast brand Weetabix and Australian winemaker Hollick. Chinese grain trader COFCO has recently spent $1.5bn on a stake in a sugar, soyabean and wheat joint venture with Hing Kong based Noble Group.

It seems that China prepares to compete with the Cargills and Nestlés of this world rather than directly gobbling up farmland in the upstream sector. There are some large food processing companies in the Gulf that operate internationally like Kuwait based Americana. Gulf countries have also shown a similar, if more subdued interest in trading companies as I describe in Oil for Food, but compared with China they have arguably less capacities to realize such strategies.

Saudi Agro-Investors Leave Ethiopia

This article on AL Monitor is very important and highlights some of the issues I have dealt with in Oil for Food (ch. 8): Why there has been such a gap between announced agro-investments that have been reported in the media and their actual implementation.

The Saudi government has been reluctant to divulge funds as it fears another agricultural subsidy binge, this time abroad. Investors complain that they cannot meet conditionalities tied to investments and say that they have decided to leave Ethiopia.

Saudis have also become less popular in Ethiopia. There is a political backlash of the ongoing crackdown on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia that has targeted Ethiopians in particular. Ethiopian maids have been accused of practicing witchcraft, a capital crime in Saudi Arabia, and were asked to provide mental health certificates, a stipulation that Ethiopians have regarded as an insult.

Like on the Philippines or in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia’s labor policies do not buy it goodwill abroad which can affect its investment plans. Other problems include lack of infrastructure and overlapping bureaucratic responsibilities in targeted countries.

I am not sure whether the Saudi Agriculture Investors Association in Ethiopia that is mentioned in the article is a very important organization. It does not have a website and a Google search does not reveal any institutional history. The size of the Saudi agro-investment in Ethiopia that its head Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Shahri mentions — $3.47 billion — is almost certainly too high.

A database of the Ethiopian government about foreign agro-investments in the country only mentioned the Saudi Star investment in Gambela of Saudi billionaire Al-Amoudi before it was taken offline in 2012 (see Oil for Food p. 202).

Even this investment has run into trouble as an Ethiopian farm executive told me recently. He said Carterpillars are sitting idle on the parking lot and Pakistani foremen of the project complained to him in a bar that they had not been paid for months.

Al-Amoudi recently acknowledged the problems of Saudi Star to Bloomberg, but said  that “Now we are getting in deeply and I’m going to follow it up myself.”

Let’s wait and see. In 2011 I argued that announced Gulf agro-investments were a “land grab that wasn’t.” If anything the implementation gap has grown. When Gulf countries have put money on the table it has been rather in developed agro markets with the necessary infrastructure like Australia or Argentina.

Saudis Shying Away from Sudan as Currency Issues Linger

The widespread implementation gap of Gulf agro-investments that I discuss in Oil for Food in the eighth chapter continues.

Riyadh-based Hadi Property Investment firm has put an investment on hold that it has considered with a Turkish partner, citing the inability to repatriate profits.

Theoretically a repatriation of 60 percent would be allowed, but as a result of Sudan’s plummeting currency there is a constant shortage of hard foreign exchange and the official exchange rate is not attractive.

Currency weakness is to persist as oil production has been lost with the independence of South Sudan. Both sides engaged in renewed military conflict in 2012 over oil fields and transit fees. The agreement over oil transit fees, that had been reached recently has become brittle again.

Thus, Sudan’s currency remains weak and it is unlikely that the government will receive as many cash infusions from Gulf states as it hopes for.

The project of Hadi eyed the production of  wheat, soya, sorghum and animal feed in Sudan’s northern state. The Sudanese state pushes projects in this area with capital intensive center pivot irrigation schemes.

Yet beside the currency issue, there are numerous other problems (see Oil for Food ch. 6), associated with maintenance, infrastructure and water.

Just Released: Globalizations Special Issue on Global Land Grabs

Just released!

*Land Grabbing and Global Governance*
/*Globalizations*/, 10(1) February 2013
*Guest Editors: Matias E. Margulis, Nora McKeon & Saturnino M. Borras Jr.*

The issue on land grabbing and global governance contains 14 articles:
introductory essay, 8 original research articles and 5 review articles
of transnational instruments to regulate land grabs. The special issue
analyzes the recent global land rush from a global/transnational
perspective and takes into account the ever greater flows of capital,
goods, and ideas across borders and that these flows occur through axes
of power that are far more polycentric than the North-South imperialist
tradition. In addition, the special issue features contributions from
scholars and global civil society activists engaged in the present
global contests to regulate land grabs in an effort to co-produce and
mobilize knowledge. The contribution of the articles in this collection
to the broader scholarship on land grabbing is that it provides a
framework for analyzing land grabbing as concurrent struggle for control
over local pieces of land and transnational regulatory institutions.
*For FREE access to selected articles for a limited time, click:
Table of Contents
Land Grabbing and Global Governance: Critical Perspectives (introductory
Matias E. Margulis, Nora McKeon & Saturnino M. Borras Jr.
Land Grabs Today: Feeding the Disassembling of National Territory
Saskia Sassen
Land Grabbing as Security Mercantilism in International Relations
Philip McMichael
Governing the Global Land Grab: Multipolarity, Ideas and Complexity in
Transnational Governance
Matias E. Margulis & Tony Porter
Gulf States and the Governance of Agro-Investments
Eckart Woertz
“One Does Not Sell the Land Upon Which the People Walk”: Land Grabbing,
Rural Social Movements, and Global Governance
Nora McKeon
International Human Rights and Governing Land Grabbing: A View From
Global Civil Society
Rolf Künnemann & Sofía Monsalve Suárez
Certification Schemes and the Governance of Land: Enforcing Standards or
Enabling Scrutiny?
Elizabeth Fortin & Ben Richardson
The Challenge of Global Governance of Land Grabbing: Changing
International Agricultural Context and Competing Political Views and
Saturnino M. Borras Jr., Jennifer Franco & Chunyu Wang
Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land,
Fisheries and Forests
Philip Seufert
The Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment
Phoebe Stephens
The Minimum Human Rights Principles Applicable to Large-Scale Land
Acquisitions or Leases
Priscilla Claeys & Gaëtan Vanloqueren
Private Governance and Land Grabbing: The Equator Principles and
Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels
Ariane Goetz
Restrictions on Foreign Acquisitions of Agricultural Land in Argentina
and Brazil
Nicolás Marcelo Perrone

To be Expected: Faulty Land Matrix Database Goes Academic…

The well known journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has published an article about global land grabs and their implications for water usage.

The authors point out important issues around land investments like the potential disenfranchisement of customary land rights holders and excessive (green and blue) water use for export crops that could compromise domestic food security.

The article does not contain primary research, instead  it marches to the usual naive quantitative drumbeat of mainstream academia: first you need to have a “database,” then you build a “model” and then you come up with some life altering findings that common sense would have been unable to achieve. In this case they have found out that water scarce countries tend to look for water resources while investing in land.

The farmlandgrab blog of the NGO GRAIN that they are using is a great source of information if you take it for what it is: a comprehensive collection of media reports about land deals. The problem is that announced agro-projects are not necessarily agro-projects actually happening. There is a huge implementation gap.

The much touted Land Matrix database, which they use to cross check the GRAIN dataset, claimed to verify such media reports. Yet at its launch it included a lot of double entries and projects over millions of hectares that never materialized like those of South Korean Daewoo in Madagascar and Chinese ZTE in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Chinese investments in particular were misrepresented. In Sudan on the other hand the Land Matrix did not contain a single project of those that have seen some degree of realization in North Sudan, but it had  a flurry of land deals in South Sudan that never made it beyond the announcement stage (e.g. the one by self-stylized Cowboy/ Mafia head investor Phil Heilberg).

Unfortunately the Land Matrix did not publish the reliability codes that it attributed to deals after cross checking. A lot of the supposed “triangulation” seems to have been between various media reports: There is a press release, journalists jump on it, an NGO reports about it as well, and all over sudden one has “triangulation.” Thus, paper deals and mere declarations of intent become projects for real. The clueless academics use it for their studies, which are then taken up again by equally clueless journalists and the news cycle closes.

The Land Matrix team has reacted to criticism. It has taken some of the paper projects off the database and is “currently developing a completely new data management system behind the interface.” Thus the database might improve over time.

Yet at its inception and when the PNAS article was written in May 2012 the Land Matrix gave a highly misleading picture about the extent of land grabs. The PNAS article is evidently unaware of criticism of the LM database. “Failed and unverified deals are not included in the Land Matrix database,” it claims. Then it continues with a nice euphemism, saying that the data might have  a “few biases resulting from the lack of transparency”……

Unsurprisingly the PNAS article dishes out outlandish figures, claiming that over 17 percent of the land area and nearly half of the cultivated area of the Philippines has been grabbed by foreign investors. During a visit of mine to the south of the Philippines in 2010 none of the announced ago-investments had gotten off the ground. Forthcoming field research by Gerben Nooteboom and Rosanne Rutten of the University of Amsterdam deals with land use change and the implementation gap of foreign agro-investments in the Philippines and Indonesia. The numbers for the UAE and Israel in the PNAS article are also out of touch with reality.

This is not to say that land grabs are not happening – especially on a national level between nationals, not necessarily foreigners. They are also problematic, but the continuous hyping of large and unverified figures does a disservice to the important issues that are at stake. A more sober debate is needed that takes stock of different quantities, but also of the need for agricultural investments and how they might be undertaken in a way that could lead to different qualities. The Manichean picture of neo-colonialism on the one hand and romanticized subsistence farming on the other is just too simple.

On a more general plane I grow increasingly bored with the mathematical fetish in social sciences. The economists pretend to practice hard science like physics, even though they are closer to theology with their axiomatic and ahistoric belief in homo economicus.

Yet everybody wants to be like them now: Whether it is political scientists, sociologists or psychologists. They start out with a boring question and a “database”, then follows a lengthy mathematical “proof” in the middle and at the end they come up with silly answers and unsurprising correlations, right at a point where the real questions should begin. It is like those medieval scholastics debating how many angels can sit on the pin of a needle.

It is high time that the social sciences regain their critical faculties and say that the king of economics is naked. After all economists did not have the slightest clue ahead of the global financial crisis as far as their orthodoxy is concerned.  And no, it was not just the databases or the models that were wrong, but the basic assumptions of the profession.


Saudi Ethanol Project in Sudan

The Sinnar state government in Sudan signed a partnership with the Saudi Tala Company to produce sugar, ethanol and bio-fuel from Jatropha. The project’s size would be 165,000 acres and its costs $650 million.

If this project is implemented it would be a new trend. Internationally, over half of  announced land aquisitions have been for biofuel projects according to Oxfam., but the Gulf countries have mainly focused on food production so far.

The ethanol production at the Kenana Sugar Company in Sudan, which is half owned by Saudi and Kuwaiti capital is an outlier. Its ethanol production makes better use of molasses by-products of sugar production and takes advantage of European subsidies for ethanol, but is hardly an end in itself.

If implemented, the Jatropha project of Saudi Tala would be a first as far as Gulf investors are concerned.