Are India’s Farmers Victims of a Global Land Rush?

Rising food prices have sparked protests in India and elsewhere in the developing world. But, according to humanitarian group Oxfam, costs are increasing because of a new menace

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Altaf Qadri / AP

Members of India's rural communities, including the landless, poor farmers and the tribal community, sleep on a road at a halting point during "Jan Satyagraha," a march to New Delhi to highlight the problems of India's landless in Gwalior, India, on Oct. 3, 2012.

On Wednesday, tens of thousands of landless farmers lined up in Gwalior, a city in northern India, and started a very long walk. Under a flapping canopy of green-and-white flags, demonstrators from several Indian states vowed to spend the next three weeks marching over 320 km from this fort town to New Delhi. They are taking to the road to demand the right to land for shelter and growing food, something they say countless rural Indians have been losing to powerful private players.

The demonstration kicked off just as the U.N. is poised to announce new global food prices. Food prices have been on a steady upward trajectory for years, a worrying development in light of the deadly 2008 riots that broke out in over 30 countries and added tens of millions of people to the world’s list of chronically hungry. Less than three years later, high food prices again helped spark the unrest that unfolded into revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East in the winter of 2011. And again today, after a drought badly affected crops, corn and wheat are more expensive than they were when the Arab Spring got into full swing. Some analysts warn that it means more unrest is on the way.

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Indians too are feeling the crunch of higher food prices, though for slightly different reasons. India is not a major food importer and has plenty of its own grain stocks despite a less-than-stellar monsoon. (Why so many Indians are going hungry, then, is another question.) That has traditionally insulated domestic food prices from fluctuations in the global market, and yet food prices in the country too have been on the rise, partly as a result of more speculation tied to the global food market. According to recent World Bank figures published in the Hindu, India recorded the second highest spike in wheat prices after Sudan in the year ending in July 2012.

An Oxfam report released on Oct. 3 argues that these rising food prices are part of what’s forcing more and more farmers in developing nations off their land in a “global land rush.” According to Oxfam’s calculations, the amount of land bought around the world by private investors from 2000 to 2010 could produce enough food to feed 1 billion people, and yet it is having the opposite effect. After the food scare in 2008, investors rushed to pour money into land deals. “From mid-2008 to 2009, reported agricultural land deals by foreign investors in developing countries rocketed by around 200%,” the report reads. Much of what’s produced on that land, particularly in Africa, is destined for export. Meanwhile, the small farmers from whom it was acquired are no longer able to feed themselves.

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India is suffering a similar fate, according to Ekta Parishad, the group organizing the march. Because of an easing of restrictions over urban land ownership in the past 20 years, smaller cities around India have been growing at unprecedented rates, cannibalizing the land belonging to villages around them. Some 50,000 villages around India have disappeared from 1995 to 2010, says Ramesh Sharma, one of the group’s campaign coordinators. He says the rise of contract farming, when small farmers grow crops on their land for private companies, and corporate farming, when the government leases tracts of land to corporations on long-term contracts, have also led to the consolidation of land in industry’s hands. “It’s completely unproductive for the people who are dependent on the land,” says Sharma. “Whenever the government needs land, they simply go and grab land from the community … It creates a very big conflict for society.”

Oxfam has called on the World Bank to put a temporary freeze on “investments involving large-scale land acquisitions” in order to set an example for governments and the private sector to “ensure investments benefit the poor.” In India, Sharma and the tens of thousands of farmers he’s on the road with today have a long list of demands that they’re bringing to New Delhi. Chief among them is the creation of a bill that would constitutionally guarantee Indians the right to land to live and grow food on. The group is also calling for the government to act on a long-ruminated land policy that defines the rights of residents whose land is taken over for public use. The bill has been languishing in the legislature, facing fierce opposition from the business community that says it will impede business prospects. “We are not asking for a [handout],” says Sharma. “We want to grow food for ourselves.”

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