Development Economy

‘Land Grabbing:’ Taking Stock of Two Years of Debate

The romanticization of farmland is part of the debate. Image: David M. Wright/flickr

“Whether viewed as ‘land grabs’ or as agricultural investment for development, large-scale land deals by investors in developing countries are generating considerable attention. However, investors, policymakers, officials, and other key stakeholders have paid little attention to a dimension of these deals essential to truly understanding their impact: gender.” (The Gender Implications of Large-scale Land Deals, IFPRI, April 2011).

Two years after the publication of “‘Land Grabbing’ by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries,” the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is again setting the agenda. The idea that we should consider gender issues when evaluating large-scale land deals shows how the ‘land grabbing’ debate has matured since it started in 2009, when rich investors from powerful countries were pitted against poor farmers in developing countries.

Of course, there are still those who condemn greedy land grabbers abusing their power to deprive poor Africans of their land, on the one side, and those who hail benevolent investors lending their money to develop backward agriculture in the ‘south’ on the other. But we can also observe many shades of gray in a debate which seems to have revived in spring 2011.

A Google Timeline search shows how the 'land grabbing' debate really started in 2009. After it cooled down a bit in 2010, it seems to have revived in 2011: not yet half into the year, the bar already shows about half of the results found for 2009.

Two years into the ‘land grabbing’ phenomenon, here are some resources on the issue.

International Relations Security Economy

Geopolitics and Law at Sea

China is betting on energy under the ‘South China Sea.’ Photo: offshorinjurylawyer/flickr

This week in New York, the state parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are meeting for the 21st time since the convention’s conclusion in 1982. Major items on the agenda are the reports of the ongoing work of the Convention’s three main organs: 1) the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLS), which interprets the Convention and adjudicates disputes 2) the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which evaluates geological and oceanographic data, and 3) the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which organizes and controls activities related to the sea floor, which lies beyond national jurisdictions.

Three main items are currently before the Tribunal: a boundary dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal (of special relevance to Conoco Phillips); the M/V Louisa case, a dispute arising from Spain’s detention since 2006 of the eponymous research vessel, which was flying the flag of St Vincent and the Grenadines in Spanish coastal waters while conducting scientific surveys of the sea floor; and a request for an advisory opinion from the Tribunal on the status of state parties sponsoring private activities on the sea floors outside national jurisdictions, a case arising from commercial activities proposed by Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. and Tonga Offshore Mining Ltd.

While these are hardly the issues making international headlines – and the above two companies remain unlikely, to say the least, to ever become major global players in natural resources – the Law of the Sea can be a genuine battleground of great power politics.


Indexing Happiness

scatter plot GDP per capita / North Korean Happiness Index
Rich countries poor souls, according to the North Korean Happiness Index. Data source: shanghaiist/wordbank

It’s official: China is the happiest country on earth. North Korea comes a close second, while the American Empire (the U.S.) ranks at the bottom of the list. That’s according to a Happiness Index released by – surprise! – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For anyone outside Kim Jong-il’s monopoly of information, the index is a surreal and somewhat comical attempt to legitimize the government’s performance. The idea of measuring happiness in general, however, is not quite as far-fetched.

Indices like GDP per capita continue to dominate national debates about social and economic progress, but critics of this practice are no longer ridiculed. Traditional gauges of prosperity are seriously flawed; they do not, for example, take into account environmental degradation or the exhaustion of natural resources. And that’s only part of the problem. The more important argument is that measures such as the GDP disregard most factors that make life worth living.

The Economist has recently launched a debate about whether or not new measures of economic and social progress are needed for 21st century economies. Proposing the motion, Emeritus Professor of Economics Richard Layard argued that quality of life, as people actually experience it, must be a key measure of progress and a central objective for any government. An overwhelming majority of the readers agreed.