This Land Is Whose Land?

At President Obama’s inauguration, Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger thumped out this splendid tune, a rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s classic This Land Is Your Land. The most delightful verse appears at around 2:25 –

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

As one commentator has noted, this isn’t the version of the song that gets sung at the Democratic National Convention, preferred as a less chauvinist substitute for Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.

The Democratic Party doesn’t like to mess around with the fundamentals of private property – land in particular – and its obfuscating habits are being propagated internationally by the current administration, at an immense human cost.

Now, the Obama administration is in many ways an improvement on its predecessor. One shift that has been lauded recently is the abandoning of the rhetoric of ‘the war on terror’, as the Financial Times notes. The savage and incoherent idea of a War on Terror belongs firmly in The Atrocity Exhibition.

President Obama has decided that a kinder gentler approach to international security is required, and that approach is ‘development’. Although it has connotations of progress and collective advancement, the truth of contemporary development is to be found, very literally, on the ground. As I’ve mentioned before, large parts of the ‘developing world’ is now in the crosshairs of powerful individuals, corporations and governments looking to profit from speculation and acquisition of land there.

An excellent article from the German news magazine Der Spiegel provides one of the best overviews of the problem. It quotes the World Bank’s resident land expert, Klaus Deininger saying that up to 30% of available arable land is available for the highest bidder to own and start producing food. They don’t mention that he thinks this is a good idea, but they do quite rightly compare the policy to colonialism.

As with colonialism, the control of territory isn’t just about land, but a broad spectrum of resources and labour. The current frenzy of international land purchases, aren’t just a land grab, but a water grab too, as the folk from Food and Water Watch report in this fine document.

Global Land Grab Undermines Food Security in the Developing World

These land grabs aren’t an exact repetition of colonialism, of course. For one, it’s not just the white man doing it but rich men from almost every country on earth. Of course, women – who grow most of the food eaten in the Global South – are quietly whited out of the discussion about land. Nothing new there, then.

And, just as colonialism purported to bring civilisation to the barbarous, so these land grabs are meant to bring development to the backward. It even has its apologists: at the International Food Policy Research Institute, economists Joachim von Braun and Ruth Meinzen-Dick have provided an intellectual fig-leaf for land grabbing.

It’s easy enough to argue for, using the tools of modern economics – it’s a policy that fits nicely with contemporary ideas of ‘development’ as efficiency, development as getting the most out of the political status quo.

One of the ways that the international community knows that development is happening is where property rights are stable. This is what governments invariably mean by ‘the rule of law’. It’s why the preamble to trade treaties will always mention ‘development’, and then go on to insist that if foreign corporate rights are abrogated by governments, those corporations have the right to sue the government for compensation. And it’s why the land grabs lay the foundation for the very opposite of development. No country can expect that the lot of its people will improve when the best of its resources are controlled and used by people who live thousands of miles away.

In the economies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, for instance, property rights were decidedly not stable, with comprehensive transfers of property and land reform carried out before development could happen. You might ask why governments in the Global South agree to this – and the answer is that their interests today are much more aligned with those seeking stable property rights than those seeking a level playing field first, and property rights later.

So, in the name of development, these trade treaties are being pushed by, yes, the Obama administration together with a small host of powerful countries, and they are to be deplored. To find out more, check out But, more than information, we need to remind governments whose land this really is, and what to do with the new thicket of signs saying ‘private property’ on land that grows food for the hungry.