Land Grabs, Food Security and Global Justice: An Interview with the Oakland Institute


Access to farmland, land ownership, and water rights are serious challenges for smallholder farmers around the world. According to the Oakland Institute, since 2008, 56 million hectares of land in the developing world (an area almost the size of France) has been acquired by investors and international governments. Food Tank recently had the opportunity to interview Anuradha Mittal, the founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank working on key social and environmental issues. The former co-director of Food First, Mittal is a well-respected expert and author on development, human rights and agriculture issues. Her most recent works include The Great Land Grab: Rush for the Worlds Farmland Threatens Food Security for the Poor; Voices from Africa: African Farmers and Environmentalists Speak Out Against a New Green Revolution; and Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation.

Food Tank (FT): Prior to forming the Oakland Institute, you were a co-director at Food First. What inspired you to form the Oakland Institute? 

 Anuradha Mittal (AM): The Oakland Institute was started in 2004, and it came from a place recognizing the need for progressive think tanks. Not just a liberal think tank, but also a progressive think tank that can look at key social, economic, and political issues, and see the interconnections between foreign and domestic policy. We also wanted to produce research that is rigorous and which gets into the public domain, so that people are informed, educated, and can make better decisions.

 FT: The Oakland Institute has somewhat of a unique position as a think tank, because you link policy advocacy work with grass-roots activists and social movements. How did this approach evolve to what it is today?

AM: I think yes, we are definitely different. We are not outside the beltway or in cities of power like Washington, D.C. Even our own office is deliberately located in the Laurel district of Oakland, not in downtown. A lot of our research agenda, in terms of research we take on, is dictated by communities who reach out to us, rather than being dictated by a funder, a foundation, or by what the latest funding trends are. In this way, our research can really have an impact on communities. In our work around land issues, almost every month or so, we get a request from a community in Senegal to a village in Papua New Guinea who have heard about our work. It usually goes something like this: "This Italian company has come and is taking away our land and we were never consulted and we are losing our livelihoods. Can we speak to you?”  Then we find these people have traveled three hours in a bus to get to an internet cafe and there is a whole village sitting on a Skype meeting with us. I think all of our work stems from exposing the true costs of hunger and poverty, or whatever topic we're talking about (e.g., a denial of immigrant rights, a denial of human rights, a denial of livelihoods) so that people and communities who are at the vanguard of the struggle have the necessary facts so that they can challenge and advocate for better policies. CNN called us a left leaning think tank, some call us an environmental think tank, communities call us an activists’ think tank, but personally I think that’s what think tanks should be doing.

 FT: In the last few years the Oakland Institute has focused a lot of attention on land grabs in the global south. Why have you focused so intently on land?

AM: For the longest time, I always thought that seed was the start of the food system and that seed is where everything begins. But in the Oakland Institute’s work with people, whether in Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, or Argentina, you realize that we have become a western, industrialized world. We are so detached from land that we have forgotten the significance of land. It is not just the basis of livelihood or just the place where you plant the seed. Without land, seed is meaningless. Land is also the source of culture, religion, of rituals, of insurance, and of inheritance for the next generation.

Whether it has been Papua New Guinea, Argentina, Ethiopia, or Zambia, whoever has been dispossessed, they may say it in different language, but the message is the same: "This is my land, this is where I was born, and this is where I'll die."  Given the significance of the struggle for the people who are the tillers of the land, who are the ones who grow food for the world, who are responsible for ensuring biodiversity, who are the environmental stewards of the world, it seemed obvious that we needed to focus on land. Over the last few years, we have seen this land rush from agribusiness, logging and mining companies, and investment and college endowment funds. Almost 75 percent of the land deals over the last decade have taken place in Africa. The reason for that is the absence of the rule of law. Buyers feel that they do not have to consult communities and that they can get ridiculous deals. You could pay more for a cup of coffee than you could pay for a hectare (ha) of land in Africa [an hectare of land is 100m x 100m]. We have seen deals in Tanzania as low US$0.50 per hectare.

At the same time, we are seeing peoples’ lands and livelihoods being decimated without free, prior, and informed consent. We are also seeing blatant human rights violations. In Ethiopia, 1.5 million people, predominantly indigenous communities, are being driven off their land. In Papua New Guinea, the prevailing idea is that development can come if you get the smallholder farmers off their land and open all the land to palm oil plantations. Thinking that development will come to developing countries by replacing smallholder farmers with large-scale plantations is a completely inside-out, backwards idea. The developed world will loot the land, the rivers, and the resources of communities in Africa and Asia and elsewhere, so that we can continue eating and living the way we do in the West.

FT: Understanding this, can you explain why land grabs have implications for global food security?

AM: We find land is the basis of every key struggle that we see today, whether it is famine crisis, climate justice, or food insecurity. Land acquisition by major groups has been promoted as a win-win situation, that it is a great way to bring jobs to local communities while also a way to improve food security of Africa. The mantra is “Africa can feed her self and the world”. But the Oakland Institute’s rigorous, irrefutable research shows that replacing smallholder famers and giving them jobs as plantation sharecroppers is not sustainable. In terms of food security, most of the land uses we've looked at are for export crops. These companies want to sell their products where they can make the most money; they are not in the charitable business of growing food for the local community. For example, we've exposed agreements that some companies have with the Zambian government that even in the case of food shortages, 80 percent of the food can be exported outside of the country.

FM: Can you please describe the Institute’s Our Land, Our Business campaign to our readers?

AM: We have a campaign right now against the World Bank called Our Land, Our Business. The World Bank has been ranking countries through a system called Doing Business. They are benchmarking and ranking countries based on what they are like to do business with. You and I may think this rank would be based on criteria such as good labor and environmental laws, but unfortunately no. If there is deregulation and it is easy for an investor to access land, countries are given a good ranking. We have exposed how this institution is driving land and water grabs in Third World countries. Take Ethiopia: in a play on the expression “the Asian tiger”, Ethiopia aspires to be the African lion. If you look at the USAID country webpage and United States State Department webpage, Ethiopia is called a renaissance country. They are building the largest dam that has ever been built in in Africa. This is a country that is opening up huge amounts land: seven million hectares to put in cotton and sugar cane plantations. And people may say: “Isn't that incredible?”  But in the discourse, they are forgetting that 1.5 million indigenous people and an area recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage site will be submerged. Pastoralists will be annihilated; people with 50 cows are being settled on less than an acre of land, where they can keep at most four or five cattle and pay for their food to be shipped in. Right now, food is being sent in while Ethiopia’s fertile soils are growing cotton and sugarcane.

 FT: What is the next big issue in your sights that the Oakland Institute is going to tackle?

AM: Our work is determined by communities who are our partners on the ground. While we have co-published reports with Greenpeace International and worked with other organizations, the majority of our partners are people who don't have a postal address. These are villagers, pastoralists and farmers who have reached out to us. We work directly with them so they determine what our work will be. We have started looking at the impact of the land lease scheme of giving away seven billion hectares of land to foreign investors in Ethiopia, accompanied by very serious blatant human rights violations. We also continue to work in Papua New Guinea, where we are looking at conservation in game parks. In most of the developing world, local forest communities live in harmony in the forest and collect forest produce. However, now with game and conservation parks, these communities are being thrown off of their ancestral land. They have become poachers and squatters on their own land. We are beginning to investigate this trend and what the implications are. What does the imposition of a western property system mean for communities that have known a system of commons and joint forestry management?  We will also continue to focus on our big campaign looking at institutions, such as the World Bank, that are driving the current development paradigm where we see increases in poverty and livelihood destruction.

 We are also tracking systems around the world that serve their people by creating better livelihoods, increasing production, and improving gender relations. In Ethiopia, we are researching how, where pastoralism is practiced, it is actually the most sustainable economy in certain parts of Africa. We are looking at Papua New Guinea, where smallholder farmers who grow an average of 30-40 different crops have incredible food security. They may not have many material possessions, but they are very rich in terms of their nourishment and diet. We are looking at and providing studies that show that both economically, ecologically, and sustainably, the best economic model for Papua New Guinea is protecting smallholder farmers and their land. Until we have peoples’ access to land ensured, we can't focus on sustainable food systems that nurture communities and the Earth.

 FT: What can the average American do to be more aware and have an impact on the issues that the Oakland Institute focuses on?  In other words, what are a few things that you do in your life that you think are good habits for others to follow?

AM: Being aware of day-to-day things can make a big difference. For instance, if you are a student, where is your college endowment invested?  Right now, at any agriculture investment conference, you can find Harvard, Spellman, the regents of UC Berkeley, the Philips Academy endowment people, etc., looking for new pastures where they can make more money. As a student, I would be curious where my university endowment, which gives scholarships and financial aid, is invested. Is that financial aid coming at the backs of poor hungry children?  We exposed how Harvard was invested in terrible land deals in Mozambique, and then they pulled out their 500 million dollars after we exposed them. Be informed. Retirement funds like John Hancock and TIAA-CREF are some of the largest land grabbers right now. Be aware of where your money is invested, and how those high returns are coming. It is wonderful seeing colleges divest from fossil fuel, but it is important to make sure they don't go invest agrifuels. We exposed how a lot of timber that comes out of Papua New Guinea is illegal timber. It is legalized and then exported out of China, so don't just look for the cheapest wood furniture. Find out where it is coming from and if it is sustainably harvested. Did it result in the decimation of forests in developing world communities and the forest produce that they depend on? In our day-to-day lives, we can be more informed and educated.

FT: You are also on the independent board of directors for Ben & Jerry’s. This seems like quite a different job description than your work at the Oakland Institute. How does your work for each group influence the other?

AM: I think I'm on the board of independent directors of Ben & Jerry’s because of the work that I do. I was asked to join the board in 2007 because the company wanted someone who had the experience that I do. So it is not really two different paths. It is fun because people say it is impossible to change things. But I feel like that is actually my lab. It is where I get to see the grandiose ideas of being political and taking positions and whether can you really do it. Can we actually execute our slogans?  It has been wonderful, but it is not always an easy road. It is about having your facts and information, being on a journey with many other people and convincing everyone to walk together. It is a great experience to be with a company who is committed to a living wage, and is willing to put out a statement recognizing that corporations are a real problem and that the one percent controlling the world's wealth is a real issue. This is a company that has made a commitment and gone completely fair trade and GMO free. These are decisions that have not come easily to the company. It is a company that is owned by Unilever, a multinational company, and this is journey that I work with others on and they don't always look like you. But it is a fun journey, never the less.  

FT: What books are you reading or have you read recently about food or land that you would recommend to our readers?

AM: When I'm not reading material for work, I love to read fiction and poetry. I try to read that which nurtures and nourishes the mind and reminds me of what the struggle is for. It is very important not just to remember what you are against, but what you are for. I love to read Wendell Berry, whose poetry and wisdom I keep going back to. I love that he reminds me about the importance of the love of the land and the magic and culture of agriculture. One of my favorite books that I keep going back to is Mike Davis' book, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. He looks at famines in India, South Africa, and Brazil when they were colonized and what colonization had to do with the famines. On one hand you had the British putting in railways and the ability to send food from one end of the country to the other, and yet you had millions of people dying in the famine. That’s why it is called the Victorian Holocaust. It is a masterpiece that I learn from and am humbled by everyday. Another book I have read recently is Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. It is a book trying to understand land struggles in this country, how the dispossessions of native populations took place, and the role land and control of land played in it. It is fascinating because you see what has happened in the United States, how different tribes were decimated, disempowered, or marginalized, and how their lands were taken away. At best the ones that fought the most got a reservation. And now you see the repeat of that in other countries.