Land Grabbing, GRAIN, TIAA-CREF, Africa and Brazil

ImageGen.ashxNew Orleans    Funny how some issues, even very big ones, linger right off your radar and then seem to pop up everywhere. Recently, I’ve felt that way about “land grabbing.” Working mostly in cities and slums around the world, out of sight is too often out of mind. Meeting in France with ReAct, our international partner, and getting a better understanding of their on-the-ground organizing of rubber and palm oil farmers in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Morocco to force accountability from the French-based transnational, Bollore, I had thought the issue was wages and working conditions, but the more I listened, the clearer it became that the issue was actually land grabbing.

According to Wikipedia, “land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals.” Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct is attending a pan-African conference in Nairobi on land grabbing now and meeting with ACORN Kenya’s organizers as an extra benefit to his short visit. We can look forward to understanding the global planning and response when we get his report upon his return to France.

Meanwhile there’s a troubling story in the Times about the US-based giant retirement fund, TIAA-CREF, including a well-documented analysis of its troubling role in land grabbing in Brazil. Their behavior is especially dodgy given the rules Brazil had put in place in 2010 to limit foreign investment in land to prevent such exploitation. TIAA-CREF seems to have tried to play button-button with the new legislation and put the lawyers and its partners to work to concoct a wink-and-nod formation that seemed to follow the letter of the law while trampling the spirit of it and then pouring in even more millions into such land deals. Were they depleting rain forests? Technically no, because they were involved in after-market transactions abetting shadowy, unscrupulous, and often rough handed wheeler dealers who grabbed the land and laundered it for purchase by TIAA-CREF and its partners later.

Having dealt with them on some business for my mother some months ago and finding them pretty reasonable in the rapacious crowd of vultures exploiting the elderly and the infirm, I was sadden to read about their shifty dealings in Brazil. On the other hand it was uplifting to read about the think-and-action tank in Barcelona, called GRAIN, an acronym originally for Genetic Resources Action International. The outfit had begun as a research think tank and took a look at its work and re-engineered itself into an organization designed to support small farmers and social movements on the ground with their research. They also reorganized as a small collective now staffed out by almost half women and eleven different nationalities. Clearly, if their work in uncovering the shenanigans of TIAA-CREF is any indication, the victims of land grabbing have found an effective ally and friend in GRAIN, and that’s good news.

Working in cities we become familiar with all of the ways that crooks steal the houses and properties of lower income families with false deeds, forged papers, and financial mayhem. It’s easy to forget that of course the same thing is operating, perhaps even on a larger scale, in stealing land from poor and indigenous farmers around the world. It’s the story of America and our history after all, but somehow we think we’re past all of that now, rather than still right in the middle of the mess. Wrong!

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