Bio-Economy Transition and Land Grabs

Energy transition to bio-based materials for fuel and heat is experiencing hype. Such transition has many attractions: away from fossil fuels that generate the climate change and dependence on the Middle East and Mr. Putin, as well as new forms of governance in which food, fuel, materials and medicine will come from an integrated source of bio-refineries. Revitalization of agriculture is another advantage with often promised rural development in the lesser developed corners of the world. The picture however, is far from straightforward. The land in Africa and Asia is being hastily bought or rented by transnational businesses for the purpose of growing fuel crops. Moreover, the greenhouse balance of such crops was brought in question, too.

One of the most captivating talks at the Earth System Governance Conference in Lund, Sweden this April was by Margaret Carol Lee. The subject of the presentation was on land-grabbing in Africa. She called this as “the crime of the new scramble for the Africa’ black gold — land”. The presentation can be seen here. She started with three stories about the land grabs by TNC (transnational corporations) in Ghana, Ethiopia and Mali. One of the most interesting points that the speaker made was that land grabbing as it is practiced for the crops that are later used for bio-renewables represent a new form of colonialism, but the one where the number of ‘colonizers’ is greater, and most importantly, where the nation-state governments are closely involved. It is indeed an interesting observation that it is the corrupt or inept governments of African states are the ones to blame for the transactions that give away the communal land on lease by transnational corporations and governments of other states from the ‘Global North”. She also mentioned that it is never just the land grabbing, inevitably it is about the water, ecosystems and linked to them socio-cultural systems. She was however optimistic at the end of the presentation, citing a growing number of international networks in support of local agriculture and against land grabbing. The speaker also has made it clear that she did not suggest that there is no need for investment in Africa, what she underlined was the benefits from investment should be shared by the African countries and not to go to the Global North.

While the talk by Margaret Carol Lee has indirectly linked land and water grabbing, there are more emerging studies which do so explicitly. The latest issue of Water Alternatives edited by Lyla Mehta, Gert Jan Veldwisch and Jennifer Franco deals with the issues of ‘water grabbing’ more directly. It has interesting articles on land/water grabbing in Africa, ‘water grabbing’ around the world and the implications of land grabbing on water resources. We are certainly seeing a new critical issue in the water policy and governance context — the global phenomenon of investment in agriculture and land grabbing and impacts of water resources, which however, only now are starting to come into the lime-light. The more attention to this critical point in the future — the better.

Farhad

Assistant Professor at International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, The Netherlands

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