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The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth

0324An unprecedented land grab is taking place around the world. Fearing future food shortages or eager to profit from them, the world's wealthiest and most acquisitive countries, corporations, and individuals have been buying and leasing vast tracts of land around the world. The scale is astounding: parcels the size of small countries are being gobbled up across the plains of Africa, the paddy fields of Southeast Asia, the jungles of South America, and the prairies of Eastern Europe. Veteran science writer Fred Pearce spent a year circling the globe to find out who was doing the buying, whose land was being taken over, and what the effect of these massive land deals seems to be.

The Land Grabbers is a first-of-its-kind exposé that reveals the scale and the human costs of the land grab, one of the most profound ethical, environmental, and economic issues facing the globalized world in the twenty-first century. The corporations, speculators, and governments scooping up land cheap in the developing world claim that industrial-scale farming will help local economies. But Pearce's research reveals a far more troubling reality. While some mega-farms are ethically run, all too often poor farmers and cattle herders are evicted from ancestral lands or cut off from water sources. The good jobs promised by foreign capitalists and home governments alike fail to materialize. Hungry nations are being forced to export their food to the wealthy, and corporate potentates run fiefdoms oblivious to the country beyond their fences.

Pearce's story is populated with larger-than-life characters, from financier George Soros and industry tycoon Richard Branson, to Gulf state sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, British barons, and Burmese generals. We discover why Goldman Sachs is buying up the Chinese poultry industry, what Lord Rothschild and a legendary 1970s asset-stripper are doing in the backwoods of Brazil, and what plans a Saudi oil billionaire has for Ethiopia. Along the way, Pearce introduces us to the people who actually live on, and live off of, the supposedly "empty" land that is being grabbed, from Cambodian peasants, victimized first by the Khmer Rouge and now by crony capitalism, to African pastoralists confined to ever-smaller tracts.

Over the next few decades, land grabbing may matter more, to more of the planet's people, than even climate change. It will affect who eats and who does not, who gets richer and who gets poorer, and whether agrarian societies can exist outside corporate control. It is the new battle over who owns the planet. 

Fred pearceFred Pearce is an award-winning author and journalist based in London. He has reported on environment, science, and development issues from sixty-seven countries over the past twenty years. Environment consultant at New Scientist since 1992, he also writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper and Yale University’s prestigious e360 website. Pearce was voted UK Environment Journalist of the Year in 2001 and CGIAR agricultural research journalist of the year in 2002, and won a lifetime achievement award from the Association of British Science Writers in 2011. His many books include With Speed and Violence, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, The Coming Population Crash, and When the Rivers Run Dry.

"Wherever I went, people were being moved off with little or no regard for their historic or cultural rights. The grabbers want big spaces – 50,000 hectares – and you can only get that if you take commonly owned ancestral lands. They come in and put in an airstrip and a compound and roads and canals and the villagers are told to go to the nearest town and they lose absolutely everything." Read an interview with Fred Pearce at the Guardian.

Read an excerpt from The Land Grabbers at Scribd.