Africa and Asia have accounted for 44 and 37 percent, respectively, of the total land grabbed since 2000. Nearly two-thirds of those acres are in Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia.
For many countries – especially in sub-Saharan Africa – the investors represent a potential to modernize their farming. About 79 percent of the land deals in Africa have been for agriculture.
It also represents an influx of money – especially as other funding seems to have eased up. Thirty percent of World Bank loans funded African agriculture in 1980; it dropped to 12 percent in 2010, according to Woodhouse's 2011 study.
And, while taking water that others need is a worry, investors could potentially drive improved water storage and distribution in regions that don’t have the money to make such improvements.
“Ultimately, the extent to which large land deals can generate real development, secure access to natural resources for all, and improve food security will depend on their terms and conditions,” said Jose Graziano da Silva, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, at a 2012 Cornell University conference.
With the world population steadily rising, the United Nations has said that food production needs to double by 2050. But not everyone agrees large-scale investment and industrial farming is the way to improve global water and food capacity.
Most international land deals involve a tangle of different corporations and partnerships. A handful of the purchasers are countries, but most are investment firms, biofuel producers or large-scale farming operations.
Closely mirroring the top water grabbers, the top five countries by amount of land purchased since 2000 were the United States, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, China and the United Arab Emirates, according to Land Matrix data.
U.S. companies have grabbed about 777 million acres since 2000. The largest acquisition by a U.S. company was a highly publicized 1,482,632-acre purchase in Sudan by Texas-based Nile Trading and Development.
The firm purchased the land for about $25,000, and attained the rights to do whatever it pleased with it – natural resource extraction, mining, subleasing or farming. At least some of the land is used for palm oil – an ingredient for biofuel.
Other large U.S. purchasers include BHP Billiton, a large mining company that owns 877,000 acres in Indonesia, a country known for untapped mining potential, and media magnate Ted Turner of AOL and CNN fame, who owns 111,000 acres in Argentina, although it’s unclear if anything is farmed there.
The U.S. companies did not return requests for comment.
Agricultural producer and investor Cargill, which is listed in the LandMatrix report as owning 775,000 acres in Brazil for soybean production, never owned the land, according to spokesman Pete Stoddart. Rather, the company received crops from farmers on the land. This, too, has stopped, he said, since Cargill joined a soy moratorium created in response to an anti-deforestation report by Greenpeace.
Stoddart said overseas investment by Cargill is done in sustainable ways that address food security and help local people and communities.
The full impact of the global land grabbing is not clear because information on the deals and their water usage is sparse, D’Odorico said.
“Sure, this could be a way to bring in capital or create jobs for those who can’t grow their own economy,” D’Odorico said. “But there isn’t evidence that proves that. Here [his study] is evidence that this could lead to lost natural ecosystems, and people losing land they’ve relied on and water they need.”
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.