Recent years have witnessed a surge in the number of agricultural investments in Asia, marked by a scramble for agricultural land. One driver of this phenomenon is the 2008 food price crisis, when food prices spiraled and hunger worsened. Another driver has been the rising demand for biofuels.

Asia’s host countries are usually developing countries, where food insecurity levels are high and small farmers are struggling: in the desire to provide a quick-fix to the problems of food insecurity and rural poverty, vast tracts of farmlands have become “up for grabs”. However, these investments are taking place at a rapid and unprecedentedly large scale, involving more than a million hectares of agricultural land across the region. These new investments seek resources – land and water – not just commodities and markets like before.

Land grabbing is a serious problem. Investments in agriculture are really investments in land; and land is a precious and scarce resource. Too often, governments are slow in land redistribution – but are quick on the draw to lease out farmland to big business and rich countries. These foreign land deals threaten to reverse gains from agrarian reform, with reselling of lands, and re-concentration of land ownership.

Equally alarming is that agricultural investments increase the number of conflicts, given the many competing claims on land. Many rural communities have been displaced and evicted to make way for plantations. Or small landowners are intimidated into leasing or selling their lands. Human rights violations are not uncommon where high-stake agricultural investments are concerned. Most always – land deals push through at the expense of the poor and marginalized. Land transactions are usually shady, lacking transparency.

Finally, the land grabbing phenomenon provokes the question of whose food security these investments enhance, and in a broader sense, who actually benefits. As is often the case, poor rural communities are at the losing end. Therefore, any consideration of large-scale land investments must strive to de-commodify land, and recognize it for what it is – inextricably tied to the lives and livelihoods of most of Asia’s rural poor. In this way, profits do not make the bottom line.

– Adapted from: “The rush for Asia’s farmland: Its impact on land rights and security of the rural poor” by Antonio Quizon (2012). Lok Niti: Journal of the Asian NGO Coalition. Vol. 18/1, 2012.