“Today Africa is the victim of unprecedented violence and we cannot be a party in it. The continent is being pillaged in every way: for its resources below ground, and for its fertile land above.”
With these words, Slow Food’s president Carlo Petrini opened the discussion on land grabbing at the Biennale Democrazia, a cultural event organized by the City of Turin. Land grabbing – the purchase or long-leasing of fertile land by private companies or foreign governments – is spreading like a virus around the world, especially in Africa. At the meeting “Utopias for the Earth,” Mario Calabresi, editor of national Italian newspaper La Stampa, led the dialogue between Petrini and Stefano Liberti, journalist, documentary filmmaker and author of Landgrabbing: Journeys in the New Colonialism.
“Land grabbing is the sale of huge plots of fertile land at ridiculously low prices, often with very serious consequences for local communities,” explained Liberti. “This happens more and more often, especially in Africa, but also in other continents. Many governments are corrupt and give away thousands of hectares in exchange for a vague promise of development. Luckily, though, the topic is slowly entering public debate, thanks also to the awareness raising activities of more structured farming communities.”
Land grabbing is not a new phenomenon, but in the last few years it has grown dramatically. “With the 2008 crisis of food prices,” explained Liberti, “the first to start the rush for fertile land were sovereign funds. The skyrocketing prices of staples scared many countries, especially those which depended the most on imports, such as Saudi Arabia: what would they eat soon, oil? If you can’t secure food, you can at least buy the land to produce it.”
However, today the greatest threat – due to the speed of exchanges, the lack of transparency and the severity of the impact – comes from financial capitalism. Many pension funds are investing in land, with terrible consequences on local populations. Often, subscribers of such plans are not aware of these forms of speculation.
“Land grabbing is a more aggressive form of neocolonialism than the armed one,” said Petrini. “We need to stop this violence. In some African countries there is no cadastre, and land is traditionally managed according to common law. Multinationals freely buy thousands of hectares of land and local populations find themselves with no land to graze their animals or produce their food. We also need to fight to change the existing system of EU subsidies: the current model allows European agro-industrial producers to sell food in Africa at lower prices than local products.”
The uncontrolled sale of land threatens the very survival of local populations and their food sovereignty, and creates an irremediable fracture in the transfer of knowledge from elders to children. “Land grabbing is the expression of a cultural model which is the exact opposite of small-scale farming,” stressed Liberti. “In Mali, or in Senegal, this phenomenon goes hand in hand with intensive farming, chemical treatments and monocultures.”
“Instead it is family farming which will solve the emergency,” said Petrini. “With Slow Food’s Thousand Gardens in Africa project we have sown the seeds of hope. Now we want to see them bloom.”