A Chinese agribusiness firm is to buy 320,000 hectares of privately-owned land in Patagonia, Argentina, along with irrigation rights and the concession of a port. Critics fear it will bring heavy agrochemical use and ecological degradation, and strain the region’s water resources through an immediate planned investment of $20m in irrigation infrastructure.
With other countries like India and Saudi Arabia also acquiring or leasing vast tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America to produce food, some argue that international land deals should be also seen as water acquisitions deals. As foreign investors use other countries’ water for irrigation they are generating a global trade flow of ‘virtual water‘. Food production worldwide accounts for 70-80% of total consumption. The ownership of land, the monopoly of food production in less developed countries, and prime access to water resources by foreign interests could lead to increased conflicts and political instability.
This is unless these deals make room to create local jobs, modernise the agricultural sector and are framed within an overall political strategy for food security in the host countries. For this to happen, “much more transparency is needed in international land acquisition deals” Charles Godfray, Hope Professor at Oxford University, said to me at an ESI workshop we organized last week. Charles is the co-author of the influential 2011 report by the UK Government: The Future of Food and Farming, as well as the highly recommended read: Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People.
The Guardian further illustrates Charles’ point with the Argentinean case:
As China’s food production is strained and the country looks abroad to secure the supply of commodities, the Chinese state-owned agribusiness company Beidahuang has joined the global scramble for land and water that has accelerated since food prices spiked in 2008.
Argentinean campaigners say that since soya cultivation is highly mechanised it will prompt unemployment in the area, as it has elsewhere in the country where many rural communities have seen an increase in deep poverty as jobs are lost. Elvio Mendioroz, president of Uñopatún, an agro-ecoclogical group that opposes the Chinese deal, said the agreement had been kept secret. “China has run out of land to feed its people, and is suffering drought and soil erosion, so they come here. But it will create the same problems for us. There has been no consultation, yet it’s already signed.”
The Argentine authorities think the deal has been misunderstood. Río Negro’s provincial government was merely acting as a facilitator for the Chinese, they said, who would have to negotiate with the private owners of land to buy sections. The port concession, reported as being for 50 years, would depend on an evaluation of its feasibility.
Argentinian environmental groups and constitutional experts are outraged. Eduardo Barcesat is a top constitutional lawyer who has been helping the federal government of the Argentinian president, Cristina Kirchner, draft legislation that would restrict foreign ownership of Argentinian land. The laws would also provide, for the first time, a full register of all landholding so that authorities can keep track of who owns what.
Research from the International Land Coalition, and Oxfam Novib, the Netherlands affiliate of Oxfam International, has identified more than 1,200 international land deals covering more than 80m hectares since 2000 – the vast majority of them after 2007. More than 60% of the land targeted was in Africa.