Ethiopians in their numbers Saturday morning stormed the 17th Street Office complex of the World Bank in Washington DC, protesting the bank’s alleged support for land grab and ethnic cleansing by President Girma Wolde-Giorgis
Displaying placards with various inscriptions like “World Bank stop financing Human rights violations,” “USA say no to ethnic cleansing of the Amharas in Ethiopia” and what will it take to end poverty? Empower people not dictators” among others, they claimed that they decided to protest to the headquarters of the bank against forceful eviction of poor farmers by alleged corrupt tycoons and foreign corporations to enrich themselves.
According to the protesters, “in Gambella more than three million hectares of Annuak land was sold to foreigners to produce food for their own people. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations claim securing land to feed their people for the future. More than 70,000 Annuaks have already been forced from their land and another 150,000 will be displaced in the coming few years.
They alleged that these evictions and ethnic cleansing is financed by the World Bank as they claim the Ethiopian government cannot do them without support from the World Bank and financing by the International Monetary Fund, (IMF).
“The World Bank and IMF are financing it at all levels including paying salaries for those who are killing the poor people. Annuaks are now an endangered species so are the Mursi people who were chased away from the South Omo Valley hunting ground to clear the land for the regime’s sugar company.
They said that if the World Bank could deny loan to Cambodia in 2011 when that government was displacing its farmers, there is no reason why the Ethiopian case should be different demanding the Bank to come clean and distance itself from the alleged crimes being committed by the present administration in that country.
“We endorse the demand of the Human Rights Watch on its recent press release on Ethiopia for the World Bank to do its own internal investigation on the land eviction issue in Ethiopia and make it public. Thousands of Ethiopians were and are evicted; many children, women and elderly are dying as a result of this. The World Bank either has to condone or condemn this human rights violation and crime against humanity” they added.
World Bank to Strengthen Focus on Land Rights
The bank, one of the world’s largest development lenders, also formally reiterated its concern over the large-scale corporate “land grabbing” that has affected vast swathes of Africa in recent years.
“The World Bank Group shares these concerns about the risks associated with large-scale land acquisitions,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said in a statement from the bank’s Washington headquarters Monday.
“Securing access to land is critical for millions of poor people. Modern, efficient, and transparent policies on land rights are vital to reducing poverty and promoting growth, agriculture production, better nutrition and sustainable development.”
Following on decades in which agricultural sectors were almost completely bypassed by international investors – including bilateral donors and multilateral lenders such as the World Bank – recent years have seen a surge of interest across all types of investors and development institutions.
On Monday, Kim noted that the World Bank, too, had stepped up its agriculture-related investments, but warned that “additional efforts must be made to build capacity and safeguards related to land rights – and to empower civil society to hold governments accountable.”
Ahead of a four-day annual World Bank conference on land and poverty here this week, the institution stated that it expected the global population to grow by two billion by 2050, requiring an expansion of global agricultural production of 70 percent.
While the institution is reiterating longstanding calls for significant new public and private investment in both small-scale and large agricultural operations, it has warned that “investment alone will not be enough” to attain these levels.
Rather, citing spiking food and fuel prices coupled with the looming uncertainties of climate change, the bank is urging the adoption of stronger national and international standards on investments and land rights as a way of helping farmers across the globe raise yields.
“Usable land is in short supply, and there are too many instances of speculators and unscrupulous investors exploiting smallholder farmers, herders and others who lack the power to stand up for their rights,” the bank notes. “This is particularly true in countries with weak land governance systems.”
As such, the bank will now be strengthening efforts aimed at improving land governance, protecting the rights of landowners, and promoting policies “that recognise all forms of land tenure and help women achieve equal treatment in obtaining land rights”.
Growing global discussion
Particularly following the rise in both global food-price volatility and demand for biofuels over the past half-decade, agricultural land has become a lucrative commodity for international investors, who have focused particularly on Africa.
According to 2011 research by the bank, some 60 million hectares of land in developing countries were purchased or leased by private sector investors in 2009 alone, a process that has continued. In many cases, local civil society organisations have warned that these transactions are being carried out with government complicity and without following international standards on stakeholder inclusion.
“There’s been a tendency recently towards governments giving large plots of land to international investors for free or at concessional rates, thinking that doing so will fast-track development,” Nicholas Minot, a senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told IPS recently.
“To some degree there’s logic to that, but there is a huge question as to whether that land was owned by the government or whether it was previously occupied by small-scale farmers without titles. Establishing secure land rights for people in rural areas is a massive but critical issue.”
Organisers say that this week’s World Bank conference on land and poverty – the 14th – is the largest they’ve ever put on, and includes participation by government officials from several countries. Bank officials also say that the conference’s focus, titled “Moving towards transparent land governance”, is indicative of a new global discussion on the issue.
“This year we have dozens of sessions on issues of land governance, transparency and implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines, which wouldn’t have been as prominent four years ago,” Jorge Munoz, a land tenure adviser for the World Bank, told IPS.
“This is not a new subject for the bank, but it has become much more prominent globally – though clearly some countries are much more interested in increasing transparency for improving land governance than others.”
As part of the bank’s scaling-up on the issue, Munoz points to the institution’s rollout of a new tool with which governments are able to get a snapshot analysis of their current land tenure and related laws. Called the Land Governance Assessment Framework, Munoz says 33 countries have now started to use it.
In addition, the bank is now assisting in implementing new international guidance, approved in May under the auspices of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), called the Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.
According to USAID, the Untied States’ central foreign assistance agency, at least 22 countries have now requested technical assistance on implementing the Voluntary Guidelines. Although the project is still in a pilot phase, a “zero draft” of the guidelines is to be released within the coming month.
“Voluntary regulations don’t always work, of course, but in this case these guidelines may be the only way to solve the problem of ensuring that small-scale farmers don’t get abused and are able to access lands they may have used for generations,” Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank, a Washington think tank, told IPS.
“Without these guidelines, we’d be left with anarchy. Still, governments and consumers now need to take the initiative to push corporations to take this seriously.”
The bank is also involved with another FAO process to develop an international set of Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment, aimed at offering global guidelines on socially and environmentally sustainable investments in agriculture.
In recent years, some civil society groups have questioned the bank’s own part in facilitating large-scale land acquisitions (including here and here), particularly that of its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Yet Munoz says much of this criticism has overstated the institution’s role, which he suggests has focused less on financing than on offering technical assistance on reforms.
“There is a major global problem with land-grabbing,” says Munoz. “The bank’s role is, essentially, to be leaders in assisting countries in improving land governance and improving the behaviour of private investors.”
U.S. Company Accused of Greenwashing Cameroon ‘Land-Grab’- Environment groups are accusing a New York-based agricultural company, Herakles Farms, of going forward with plans for a 73,000-hectare palm-oil plantation and refinery in southwest Cameroon despite a lack of government authorisation, two court injunctions, and in the face of significant community opposition.
On Wednesday, the Oakland Institute and Greenpeace, two environment watchdogs based here in the United States, released a report suggesting that the project, situated in what is described as a biodiversity hotspot between four major conservation zones, could negatively impact up to 45,000 people.
The groups warn that the project, which is linked to the Blackstone Group, a massive investment group, represents the vanguard of a new “scramble for land” in Africa by Western companies.
“Herakles claims to be engaged in improving Cameroon’s food security and humanitarian situation, but we have found this to be a total fraud. In fact, they are about to destroy the livelihoods of thousands,” Frederic Mousseau, the report’s author, said in a media call Wednesday.
“Likewise, Herakles claims local support, but we found this to be a blatant lie. Finally, the claim that this land is secondary forest and degraded is misleading. In fact, large portions have never even been logged.” (By deadline, Herakles officials had not responded to requests for comment.)
The project, overseen by a Herakles subsidiary called SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SGSOC), is still at an early stage, currently consisting of three large nurseries. “We are now waiting for an official decision by the Cameroon government to proceed beyond these nurseries,” Mousseau says. “So this is an important moment – the project can still be stopped.”
The backlash against SGSOC took on new energy over the past week, following the Aug. 24 notification that Herakles was removing the project from formal compliance with a set of eco-friendly industry guidelines called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
In explaining the move, Herakles, which describes itself as “committed to addressing the complex issues of food security through sustainable agriculture initiatives”, cited the length of time its RSPO application had been pending, while noting that it was “addressing a dire humanitarian need” in Cameroon.
No formal approval
The legality of the project’s nurseries has already been called into question. Although SGSOC did sign a 99-year agreement with the government in 2009, Cameroonian law requires that the use of such large tracts of land have direct presidential consent.
Given that such a decree has yet to be given, activists suggest that SGSOC had no legal basis on which to start bulldozing the forestland and cocoa and vegetable farms on which local communities depended.
A local judge has filed two injunctions against the company’s actions, but according to local observers the company has refused to comply.
“Not only do they not want to comply with existing law, but the company has clearly turned its back on sustainable practices,” says Samuel Nguiffo, a lawyer and director of the Center for Environment and Development, in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde. “The government structure in our country is very weak, so we’re asking the U.S. to stop the company.”
Herakles officials do say they have received community support for the project, but eyewitness accounts suggest that this is patchy at best.
“When the company came here, they said that this project had (already) been authorised by the president of Cameroon … So we just kept quiet,” Edward Ndomo, the chair of the local traditional council, told Oakland Institute researchers for a new documentary. “We never had any full meetings with the company.”
Marie Meboka Boya, a member of Parliament representing the area in which the nurseries have been built, told researchers that she thinks the company has taken a “buy-off approach”, offering small amounts of money or food in return for some local backing.
“From the reaction of the community and the dodgy attitude of the company,” she says, “I know that there is no proper agreement.”
Scramble for Africa
The Herakles project is one of a large number of new foreign-invested land deals in Africa. And despite its significant size, it is not the largest – in Congo, for instance, a deal of a million hectares have been discussed.
“There are so many Europeans and Americans looking for new land in Africa right now, we’re worried that a land-rush may be imminent,” Greenpeace’s Rolf Skar says.
Because Cameroon is a major new palm-oil producer, many are now suggesting that what happens with the Herakles deal could set a precedent for the entire continent.
“If we confirm the bad deal we have now, all the companies coming in will have as bad a deal as Herakles,” says Nguiffo. “Cameroon and neighbouring countries are currently experiencing a huge demand for land, and land grabs at this scale are very new for us – it’s frightening.”
Nguiffo says that while Cameroon currently has about 500,000 hectares of land under plantation, mostly on old farms, over the past three years demand for land has shot up to nearly three million hectares, driven by foreign investors backed by pressure from foreign governments and multilateral lenders.
“Donors and international financial institutions have increasingly been asking African countries to open up their economies, despite the fact that in most of these countries there is very little rule of law,” says Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, which in recent years has researched about 70 of the new industrial-scale land deals.
Almost all of these deals, she says, are marked by a lack of both transparency and local involvement, as well as an absence of the many benefits promised to local and national economies – jobs, growth in gross domestic product, the construction of new clinics or water sources for local communities.
“There have also been a lot of myths around who the investors are,” she says. “It’s not just the Chinese or Indians or the Gulf states. The number of investors from Europe and U.S. is huge, including private equity and hedge funds, all looking for opportunities in the next soft commodity.”
Development for whom?
Still, certain oversight trends have changed in recent years, as consumers become increasingly aware of labour and environment issues around the world.
“A company has to sell its product somewhere, and these practices are in direct contrast to other producers and buyers – Kraft, Nestle, Unilever – which are asking for much higher standards for the palm oil they purchase,” Greenpeace’s Skar says. “Herakles is falling off the cart on this issue and will have to answer to its shareholders as to why.”
For many advocates, the issue comes down to the type of development that the international community is pushing.
“Today the big push is to get rid of the millions of smallholder farmers in Cameroon, to transform them into low-paid labourers on large farms,” Greenpeace’s Mousseau says.
“In today’s development discussion we’re told this is necessary, and we give legal and fiscal exemptions to investors. But we don’t actually see any development resulting from investments – what we see is exploitation of human and natural resources.”
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CHARTS: The Top 5 Land-Grabbing Countries
Over the last decade (and especially during the last four years) wealthy nations have increasingly brokered deals for huge swathes of agricultural land at bargain prices in developing countries, installed industrial-scale farms, and exported the resulting bounty for profit. According to the anti-hunger group Oxfam International, more than 60 percent of these "land grabs" occur in regions with serious hunger problems. Two-thirds of the investors plan to ship all the commodities they produce out of the country to the global market. And droughts, spikes in food and oil prices, and a growing global population have only made the quest for arable land more urgent, and the investments that much more alluring.
In what a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) characterizes as a "new form of colonialism," investors from the US, UK, and China are gobbling up foreign farmland at "alarming rates" and often with little consultation and compensation of poor small-scale farmers and local populations.
According to the PNAS study, the land grabbing phenomenon has already claimed some 203 million acres, or about .7 to 1.75 percent of the world's total farmland, since 2002, with the majority of acquisitions after 2008. Out of 41 land grabbing speculators, the US ranks second, with 9.14 million acres grabbed, an area larger than the country of Qatar. And according to another report from the Oakland Institute, highlighted by my colleague Jaeah Lee, many of the purchases are carried out by private equity funds, university endowments, pension funds, and hedge funds looking to strengthen their portfolios by capitalizing on declining natural resources. And as Mother Jones blogger Tom Philpott has noted, the grabbers have an average per capita GDP about five times the size of the grabbed.
Take a look at the top five land-grabbing countries below and their respective claims:
easier to wrest land and displace small-scale farmers in countries with a weak rule of law, according to Oxfam. In many cases, the land is developed to export crops or commodities for biofuels, and in other cases, left to sit idle so it can increase in value before it's sold.
Of the countries that lost the highest percentages of their cultivated land, nine out of 10 have malnourishment rates of 5 percent or more (see chart below). And according to Foreign Policy and Fund for Peace's Failed States Index, all the states in the graph below, with the exception of Uruguay, are categorized as unstable.
But the World Bank rejected the suggestion, saying that it would "do nothing to help reduce the instances of abusive practices and would likely deter responsible investors willing to apply our high standards." It acknowledged, however, that enforcing those standards "is challenging." It's a challenge that must be overcome, or land grabbing, as Oxfam says, could become "one of the great scandals of the 21st century."
World Bank Should Be Blamed for Land Grabs in Africa
How is it possible that something so egregious — so clearly bound to increase the vulnerability of the world’s poor — can become legitimized by an institution tasked with alleviating poverty?
Opponents have largely framed the issue as a matter of corporate greed taking priority over local people’s rights. But the real, if less tangible, driver goes far deeper than that. Where land grabs find their justification, at the most fundamental level, is in our society’s acceptance of agriculture’s subordination to industry. This disparity is so deeply embedded in our global economy that it has been taken for granted and thus often ignored as a culprit in today’s systemic food crisis.
The emergence of agriculture as an industry in itself marks the ultimate capture of agriculture by industry. Foreign investment in African farmland to sustain the biofuels industry is part of a frightening trend in which increasing amounts of land are diverted from local food production — including for livestock feed and ingredients for the food industry. That no major development institution is confronting this injustice, and all are instead calling for higher yields to fight hunger, is a testament to the potency of industry’s triumph.
And as rural communities are pushed off their land, all sorts of assumptions are made about how they will achieve food security. The World Bank, in its Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment, writes: “Whenever there are potential adverse effects on any of aspect of food security (availability, access, utilization or stability), policy-makers should make provisions for the local or directly affected populations certain such that … equivalent access to food is assured.”
What this language reflects is how proponents of land deals are seizing on the consumer and urban bias that defines the global food economy. As displaced rural populations are bound to become dependent on food from global markets, they are paradoxically becoming regarded as the urban consumers whose very food they produce. Justifications of land grabbing, then, are equating food with the same values that underlie manufactured industrial products in the world economy: cheap, abundant, and available somewhere in the world. Just as agribusiness control becomes justified for providing cheap food, so too multinational manufacturers are embraced for producing consumers’ leisure items. This mindset turns a blind eye to how corporate consolidation of agriculture has devastated many small and medium-sized farmers, and how global manufacturers marginalize their labor force.
But food can no longer be seen like any product that can appear from a factory somewhere in the world. The era of cheap food is over. The 2008 food crisis, which featured a skyrocketing of food prices, witnessed urban riots in over 30 countries. During the next crisis, will we soon see similar forms of contestation among the rural communities who have lost their land to foreign investors?
The end of cheap food may, in fact, provide an opening to address the rural-urban imbalance in the global food economy. After all, the consumer and urban bias couldn’t prevail unless food were cheaply available. The wake-up call provided by today’s food crisis is an opportunity to restructure the social relations of global agriculture and elevate the value of rural communities to its rightful place. Once this happens, suddenly land grabbing becomes indisputably exposed as an assault on the rights of rural people; there is no possible way to find any hint of legitimacy in the takeover of land belonging to others. This sort of shift has the potential not only to halt land acquisitions in Africa, but also to enhance the rights of agricultural communities in developed countries.
Indeed, one of the best examples of contestation comes from a country where the urban consumer bias has long thrived.
In Ontario, Canada, Highland Companies has purchased farmland with the intention of turning it into mega quarry for extracting limestone to be used in road building and construction — a glaring example of urban needs taking precedence over farmers’ rights. This has triggered mobilization among activists worried that the quarry could threaten the water supplies in a region responsible for half the Greater Toronto area’s potato production. But it’s not just the farmers who are protesting. Paradoxically, it’s also the urban population whose resource demands are driving this land grab in the first place. And so perhaps the best way to contest the urban bias is to build a food movement centered on regional food economies.
“Part of building food security — especially fruits and vegetables, the mainstay of healthy diet — is relying on regional producers,” said Wayne Roberts, the former director of the Toronto Food Policy Council. “This is one of the most productive areas of the world with access to water, which we could destroy with the quarry.”
So as the debate over land grabbing rages on, let’s use this as a vital opportunity to think about how the very underpinnings of world agriculture — favoring not only industry itself but the industrial mindset of consumption — might be the historical roots of the crisis of displacement unfolding in the world’s poorest countries.
October 21, 2012 Woodbine Park, Toronto
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Dirty hands – the World Bank’s role in land-grabbing
Released on the eve of the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty in Washington DC, (which is taking place from 23-26 April), two new films reveal widespread violations of people’s rights and environmental destruction from land grabbing in Africa.
The films, released by La Via Campesina and Friends of the Earth International, are first-hand accounts of how privatization of land, and corporate-friendly policies promoted by the World Bank lead to violent displacements and hunger and facilitate the global takeover of community land by private interests.
In Mali, Libyan multinational corporation MALIBYA has been awarded 100,000 hectares of prime agricultural land to grow export crops and livestock. The $25 billion project includes building one of the largest irrigation canals in Africa, allowing Mali’s precious water supply to be used by MALIBYA. The project is intended to develop agricultural industry through foreign direct investment – a strategy aggressively promoted by the World Bank. In reality, it has already violently displaced hundreds of families and demolished entire villages. Farmers are deprived of their livelihood and the capacity of the local people to feed themselves is hampered.
In Uganda, the World Bank has provided millions in funding and technical support to a large-scale expansion of palm oil at the expense of local food crops and forest. Communities are losing access to land for farming, firewood, forest products and water supplies. Despite promises of employment, local people have lost their means of livelihood and are now struggling to make ends meet. Nearly 10,000 hectares are already planted in islands off Lake Victoria, with 30,000 more planned.
The World Bank conference brings together investors, governments, International Financial Institutions and civil society to discuss land governance. Yet previous policies of the World Bank, such as turning communal land rights into private land titles, encouraging private finance to invest in land and providing technical and policy support for foreign land investments, has set the stage for a global land grab on a massive scale. Voluntary ‘Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment’ (RAI), being promoted by the World Bank currently are toothless and unlikely to halt land grabbing.
World Bank policies "enabling" African land grab
Agriculture and the food crisis are a high-profile agenda topic at the upcoming World Bank annual meetings, and critical voices are growing on the Bank's approach to food price volatility (see Update 77, 76). Recent in-depth research by the US-based Oakland Institute raises further difficult questions on agriculture policy for Bank officials. The report implicates the World Bank Group (WBG) in the increasing acquisition of farmland in the developing world by private investors and wealthy nations, which critics are calling a global 'land grab' (see Update 76, 72, 71, 68). The investigative research, published between March and June, analyses a series of land deals in countries across Africa and finds that the purchases of land, often by large institutional investors, are mainly unregulated, produce few of the promised benefits to local people, and instead are forcing thousands of small farming communities off ancestral land, creating serious food insecurity and driving environmental destruction.
Writing in a blog for Reuters, Joan Baxter, a research fellow at the Oakland Institute, said that "more than any other institution or agency, the World Bank Group has been promoting direct foreign investment in Africa, and enabling the farmland rush." Their in-depth reports on Mali and Sierra Leone reveal how the WBG "has shaped the economic, fiscal, and legal environment … in a way that favours the acquisition of vast tracks of fertile lands by few private interests instead of bringing solutions to the widespread poverty and hunger."
The Oakland Institute finds that the WBG has, through an array of different policies, overseen a shift towards prioritising large-scale commercial agribusiness, achieved by attracting and promoting foreign agricultural investment. The Foreign Investment Advisory Service and the Remove Administrative Barriers to Investment program, both projects of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the Bank's private sector arm, have "been working - often behind the scenes - to ensure that African countries reform their land laws and fiscal regimes to make them attractive to foreign investors" (see Update 68). The Bank has financed legal reform mechanisms that are promoting rapid changes in land tenure laws, "driven by a desire to facilitate large-scale agricultural investment".
The Bank has also been funding investment promotion agencies in African countries that place private sector advisors in key governmental ministries, including presidential offices. This was a key part of the Growth Support Project for Mali, financed by a loan from the International Development Association (IDA), the Bank's low-income country arm. The salaries of the directors of the Malian investment promotion agency are covered by the IDA loan. The agency also includes IFC consultants, and guarantees investments through the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), the Bank's risk insurance arm.
Baxter observes that these agencies "are developing and advertising a veritable smorgasbord of incentives not just to attract foreign investment in farmland but also to ensure maximum profits to investors. These include extremely generous tax holidays for 10 or even 30 years, zero per cent duty on imports, and easy access to very large tracts of land, sometimes over 100,000 hectares. Investors may pay just a couple of dollars per hectare per year for the land, and in Mali, sometimes no land rent at all."
RAI principles found wantingThe reports from both Sierra Leone and Mali also argue that the land deals facilitated by the Bank's investment promotion policies fail to comply with it's own large-scale responsible agricultural investment principles (RAI, see Update 76, 71). The report on Sierra Leone says the RAI principles are "vague and minimal", and are "based on the controversial assumption that industrial-style agriculture and land use can increase food production and fuel economic growth in host countries", and "do not consider the overall questions about the enormous risks and inherent injustices of the global rush by investors and nations for farmland". It argues that that land deals in Sierra Leone do not conform to the RAI principles, while the Mali report argues that the "Bank ignores its own principles by supporting institutions and policy reforms that disregard them."
The RAI's have also come under fire for legitimising corporate land grabs in a recent press statement by social movement Via Campesina. Released before the meeting of G20 agriculture ministers in June, it states that the "World Bank initiative to make land grabbing more socially acceptable is no solution at all. The Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) are set up to legitimise land grabbing from small holders."
Meanwhile, the IFC has dropped a controversial proposed investment in a company accused of land grabbing. It had planned to lend $30 million to Calyx Agro Ltd, an Argentinean subsidiary of a French owned commodities trading company. Calyx Agro holds farmland across South America. In June a group of NGOs and social movements, including Via Campesina and Focus on the Global South, sent a letter to IFC head Lars Thunell opposing the investment. The letter states that "at a time when social movements in Latin America and around the world are calling for a stop to the 'farmland grab' and where many of the region's governments are pursuing measures to restrict foreign investment in their farmland, it is unacceptable for a multilateral institution like the World Bank to be offering direct support to some of the world's leading actors involved in land grabbing."