Thanksgiving & Landgrabbing

This Thursday, many people in the US will celebrate Thanksgiving, commemorating the English invasion of a country that already belonged to somebody else.

Tradition has it that in the 17th century, invaders (for dramatic effect, I shall here refer to them as pilgrims) arrived on the continent of America as religious refugees seeking a peaceful life. After several failed attempts at establishing themselves there, mainly due to the difficult conditions for growing food, eventually the pilgrims survive and thrive owing to the knowledge shared by the Native Americans.

As a token of their appreciation, they invited Native American tribes to a feast where they shared the food they were able to grow thanks to the techniques, such as that of the three sisters, shared by local tribes.  It is a story that attempts to portray that despite their difficult history, the Native Americans and the invaders were able to set aside their differences and enjoy a shared meal together. And I appreciate the moral of this story. However, even if this story is true, since that time the Native Americans have suffered centuries of oppression, war, land-theft, slavery,  violence, broken promises, massacres and marginalisation at the hands of the generations borne from the first pilgrims. It is for this reason that Thanksgiving has come to signify the beginning of the end for many Native Americans, some referring to it instead as a National Day of Mourning.

The arrival of pilgrims in the Americas 500 years ago set into motion what was essentially the biggest Land Grab in history, and this continues to this day with the Dakota Access Pipeline. I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about the land grabbing that is taking place today in modern agriculture.

The current spate of land-grabs are down to the 2008 food crisis. This prompted food security fears in the global north and a sudden flurry of panic as wealthy nations with little agricultural land left on which to grow food to maintain their current levels of over-consumption and increase their food security began to buy up huge tracts of land in the global south. Here, countries, who were often already experiencing high levels of malnutrition, were too poor to invest in food security themselves and eager to receive foreign capital to invest in their own development. Produce cultivated on the land is generally intended solely for export to its original investor, and therefore host countries only benefit from the selling the land in the very short term.

Since the food spike in 2008, the term “land grabbing” has gained increasing popularity around the world. Land grabbing refer to large-scale land acquisitions made mainly by private investors but also by public investors and agribusiness on which to grow food. These acquisitions generally take advantage of legal grey-areas, where customary land rights coexist and often contradict with statutory land rights. It is in many ways a continuation of colonialism, more explicitly led by the private sector than it was in the past.

It is not coincidence that land-grabbing tends to take place in poorer countries- history plays a key role and past socio-economic problems associated with the land will make it more likely for there to be unclear notions of ownership.  70% of land grabs have occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. Issues such as peak oil have only fuelled the race for land, as wealthy nations seek to secure their future fuel supply by investing in biofuels.

Land grabbing has caused a multitude of problems for countries on the receiving end of the deal. As many countries’ populations are largely rural, communities have lost much of the land from which they were meeting their needs for food, water and fuel. Small-scale farmers, the majority of which are women, that worked the land as a livelihood are often ‘squeezed out’ as they are unable to keep tenure of their land through force or economically out-competed. Farmers therefore have to abandon their ancestral land, seeking livelihoods elsewhere or even gaining employment with the corporation operation on the stolen land. Whilst this may be heralded as ‘job creation’ by the colonists, its is often nothing short of modern day slavery– poor working conditions, little or no concern for health and safety, and poor pay. Promises of community benefits such as schools and hospitals are frequently broken.

Land bought at such a large scale is generally inclined to establish equally-large scale monoculture agriculture, which has dire effects on the environment and surrounding biodiversity of the region. Important resources such as water, soil and trees are generally degraded by the intensive methods of monocultures if not eradicated altogether.

Back to the topic of Thanksgiving, I’ll offer my tuppence-worth: I fully support a holiday that encourages reflection of what we, as a society, can be grateful for- for our food, our friends, our family. However, when it is so explicitly and directly linked with the destruction of another’s society, I think there are ways in which we can celebrate it with a little more humility and awareness.

With regards to modern day Thanksgiving celebrations, perhaps we can use them as an opportunity to learn from the past- to investigate injustices that may be repeating themselves in the modern day and educate yourself about how you can effect change and encourage others to do so.

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


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