By Martin Empson
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In 2011 the charity Oxfam estimated that in the previous decade around 227 million hectares of land had been bought up in large scale "land grabs". This was mostly for the imposition of industrial agriculture.
Issue 382

In the process people are thrown off their land, local markets are broken up and ecologies are destroyed.

In recent years there has been growing awareness that land grabbing is taking place in the Global South. In particular, Africa and South America have been targeted by large multinationals and certain states.

But a new report published in April this year shows that very similar processes are taking place in Europe as business is gaining control of enormous parts of the continent, and land ownership is becoming concentrated in a smaller and smaller number of hands.

The report, Land Concentration, Land Grabbing and Peoples’ Struggles in Europe by Via Campesina and the Hands-Off the Land Alliance shows that while these processes are not new, they have accelerated in recent decades, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Some of the statistics are startling. In the European Union for instance, farms that are over 100 hectares in size and classed as “large” control 50 percent of the land, despite only being three percent of the total.

This concentration of land in fewer and fewer farms is matched by a destruction of the smaller farm. In Germany in the last fifty years the total land farmed by farmers with less than two hectares has shrunk to by almost 75 percent. But just in the last few years, German farms of over 50 hectares have expanded by over 3 million hectares.

The increasing domination of larger farms is helped by agricultural policies that favour big business. In 2009 in Hungary for instance, only 9 percent of farms got almost three quarters of all agricultural subsidies. In Italy, just 0.0001 percent of farms gained 6 percent of all subsidies.

The landgrabs taking place are not just by multinationals. Private individuals and organisations are also getting their share. In his recent book Landgrabbers the environmental journalist Fred Pearce showed how large areas of the world were being brought up by individuals to use for their private playgrounds. Even the Moonies have got in on the act owning some 800,000 hectares in Brazil and Paraguay. Similar things are happening in Europe. In Serbia, for instance, the four largest landowners control more than 100,000 hectares and in Ukraine some oligarchs now own several hundreds of thousands of hectares.

Part of this is because land is increasingly being bought and sold for speculation.

The privatisation of state owned land in Eastern Europe after 1989 led to a boom in prices that has continued until today. Between 2005 and 2001 for instance the cost of land in Germany rose by 55 percent. This sell off rarely benefited local communities. The western multinationals that bought up East European industry also did very well out of purchasing land; the Hungarian government estimates that up to 1.5 million hectares of the country is owned by foreigners. Similarly six percent of Romania is controlled by transnational corporations.

As in Africa, Asia and South America, landgrabs like these can be devastating to communities and the local economy. But there is also resistance. In part this occurs because the landgrabs themselves have impacts far wider than simply changes in land use. One chapter in the report is a revealing study of plans to build a new airport in Notre-Dames-des-Landes in France. Plans involve half a billion euros in investment, the world’s largest construction company and the French government.

Building the airport would mean concreting over 2000 hectares of agricultural land, despite concerns around aircraft noise, pollution and safety. Opposition has united local farmers who stand to lose their land, or having their farming affected, as well as other activists such as environmentalists. The land occupation and wider campaign has already won small victories, though the campaign continues.

Elsewhere, in Andalusia farmers, workers and the unemployed have worked as part of the Andalusian Trade Union to lead land occupations. In one case, in Somonte, farm lands that were due to be auctioned off have been occupied by the unemployed who have begun to grow food for their own use and to sell on the local market. Such examples may be on a very small scale – the example at Somonte has created jobs for some 50 people on 400 hectares. But in a region with extremely high unemployment that traditionally relies on the agricultural economy, this could well become the focus for further struggle in the future.

The concentration of land in the hands of a tiny few in the interests of profit is not a new feature of capitalism. Today however there are new dynamics. The speculation in food and land has fuelled a boom in land sales, as has the turn towards the growth of crops for bio-fuels.

Whether in Europe or elsewhere, the large scale, mono-cultural agriculture that results from such landgrabs has no benefits for people or the environment; only serving to further profit big business.

Without further resistance the trends highlighted by this important report will continue. Inevitably this will lead to future food crises and a worsening environment. The small examples of resistance taking place in Europe, together with rural struggles in the Global South are the hope for an alternative.

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