Feed the World

The Global Land Grab

Rich countries are buying up poor countries.

Chhek Sambo

Chhek Sambo, in yellow, surrounded by other villagers in Skuon Village, near Phnom Kulen, Cambodia.

Photo by Jerry Redfern

Chhek Sambo works a little farm on the fertile plains stemming from a sacred Cambodian mountain known as Phnom Kulen. For 17 years this tropical plot has given Sambo and her family rice, cassava, mangoes, bananas, lychees, “everything we can eat.” She and her neighbors raise chickens and ducks (free-range) and cows (grass-fed). The land provides her daily sustenance, and farming is the only job she’s ever known. There is nowhere else Sambo would rather be, nothing else she would rather do, than “live here forever,” working this dirt until the end of her days.

But Sambo has a problem: She might lose this land. Like millions of subsistence farmers worldwide, Sambo and the 117 families in her rural community of Skuon have no formal title to their farm fields. And now, someone else wants her 2.5-acre patch.

It’s a familiar story in Cambodia, where land disputes have disrupted the lives and livelihoods of half a million people. Many of the affected are small-scale farmers who grow their own food. “Without land, they no longer have the means to provide themselves with the basic requirements for a decent life,” according to Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights group LICADHO.

Many land feuds in Cambodia begin on paper but lead to physical fights. The worst end in death. Villagers often protest against forced evictions, but they typically fail when faced with police or soldiers. “The people have knife and fork, but the soldiers have gun,” says Chao Leak Vanna, a LICADHO human rights monitor.

This is a global humanitarian crisis. An unprecedented worldwide scramble for land—predominantly for agriculture—has spurred a new era in the “geopolitics of food scarcity,” according to Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute. That scramble escalated dramatically with the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent rise in food prices. Countries that export food began to limit how much they would sell. Countries that import food “panicked,” Brown writes, and started buying up or leasing other countries’ cheap land on which to produce their own food. Hardest hit were poor countries like Cambodia, where the elite eat abundantly and the poor already struggle to feed themselves.

Globally, the rush to turn small family farms into commercial enterprises isn’t aimed at feeding the needy, many policy experts say. As Oxfam reports, two-thirds of agricultural deals with foreign investors take place in chronically hungry countries.

In recent years at least 500 million acres—an area nearly three times the size of Texas—has been sold, leased, or claimed globally.

Sambo says she doesn’t know why a wealthy man wants her land. But commercial cassava farms have sprouted around her village, fueled largely by demand from Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Cassava, or tapioca root, is one of the country’s top exports. It can be processed for use in everything from noodles to glue to pharmaceuticals. Cambodia lacks the facilities for widespread commercial processing, but it has the land to grow the plant.

I sit with Sambo and a couple dozen villagers on slat tables in the shade behind her house—a one-room assemblage of thatch, wood, fish net, plastic tarps, and corrugated metal. There is no electricity here and few possessions, but a row of mango trees droops with heavy green fruits. A mother duck and her ducklings waddle across the yard. Chickens cluck, and roosters crow. A man washes his cow. Everything that happens in this yard, as we chat, pertains to food and survival.

Sambo tells me that securing a land title is the first step toward the freedom to farm and feed herself. The document might not solve all her problems—LICADHO has reported an increase in disputes involving villagers who do have legal land titles—but that piece of paper is the starting point for a legal fight to keep her property. Without it, Sambo has no security and no hope of ever getting it.

At 49, she has always grown her own food. When she was very young, her family and many others practiced shifting cultivation, moving from place to place every few years. The civil war that began in the 1960s disrupted everything for rural Cambodians. Between 1975 and 1979, the genocidal Khmer Rouge tried to create an agrarian utopia, herding people from cities into the countryside to work as slave farmers. An estimated 1.7 million people died of murder, disease, and starvation. The regime collapsed in 1979 with a Vietnamese invasion, but war still simmered in the countryside. The remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers were driven to the hinterlands, ending up in places like Phnom Kulen. There was “shooting and fighting, landmines,” Sambo says. She has a rough scar where a bullet grazed her leg in a shootout. Her mother was killed in a gunfight during the Khmer Rouge years.

When the fighting finally stopped, a semblance of peace started to emerge. The leader of Sambo’s commune—a collection of neighborhoods or villages—offered this land for farming in 1997. The commune leader offered no documents, no formal titles—and no one thought to ask about them.

Lack of documentation is a familiar story in Cambodia and other countries where warfare has left society in disarray: families displaced, homes destroyed, and government records lost. It’s also typical in places where people traditionally roamed the land, hunting and foraging for food. Laws in many Asian countries do not recognize the rights of indigenous people and nomads “who leave no permanent mark on the landscape,” according to Chris Hunt, a paleoecologist who works in remote regions of Borneo, where logging threatens rainforests critical to the local diet.

In the years since Cambodia’s wars, many villagers don’t bother to seek land titles until they want to sell, says LICADHO’s Vanna. And then it’s often too late—a wealthy investor has already eyed the property or even bought it without the villagers knowing. Locals can’t compete. In this environment, village farms become a “marketable commodity, available for external acquisition by those with the most money and lawyers,” according to the Oakland Institute, a California-based policy think tank.

As land prices skyrocketed globally, Sambo’s village chief decided to sell their fields “to a richer man,” she tells me. Legal documents confirm this. The villagers call the buyer “ek oddam,” the Cambodian term for high-ranking, powerful men. In 2008—the same year the economic crisis hit millions of subsistence farmers worldwide—Sambo and her neighbors moved from their homes in a village down the road and built huts right on the farm so they could defend it. “We came here to live because we were scared, because we don’t want to lose this land,” she says. Then, one day a few years ago, the ek oddam arrived. “All of us circled the car and tried to stop him.” Sambo and her husband were arrested. “I was in prison about 45 days,” she says. “My husband was in prison six months.”

Since then, the villagers have sought help from LICADHO and paid repeated visits to local and provincial government offices, asking for land titles. So far, Sambo says, they have received two government documents. She pulls them from plastic folders kept in a safe place in her home. One document states that the land they occupy is for local farmers, not businessmen; the other says the villagers are waiting for a title. It’s essentially an application receipt—not the actual title.

“We’re still afraid,” a young villager named Srieng says. They’re already on the brink; they’re already hungry. As it is, the villagers eat only twice a day, “morning and evening,” Sambo says. “For the midday, I don’t eat because I don’t have enough food.” Often, rice and chili paste constitute a meal.

It’s a balancing act between life and death, performed daily in the country’s poorest villages. “In my terminology, they don’t live, they survive,” says development expert David Sandilands, who has spent years helping Cambodians improve their nutrition. Such degrees of poverty and hunger are common to millions of the poorest farmers in the world.

Land disputes frequently exacerbate the problem, yet land rights rarely enter the global conversation about the future of food. These days it seems every major think tank and analyst has answers to the “9 billion people problem,” involving five-step plans and solutions-oriented conferences aimed at feeding the world. Many experts agree: The world will need to ramp up food production by 70 percent in future years.

There’s a big push for “big ag” in the developing world. But shifts toward mechanized agriculture with amped-up production “will not solve the problem: it will make it worse,” writes Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. specialist on the right to food. Large-scale investments in farmland do less to reduce poverty “than if access to land and water were improved for the local farming communities.”

Sambo and her neighbors understand this viscerally, especially in the tough months between December and May, when the rains cease and the earth parches. She walks me through her field of caked, hard, dry mud. Sambo, like millions of subsistence farmers worldwide, has no irrigation beyond buckets of water she carries by hand. She can’t grow paddy rice until it rains. To supplement her diet, she buys some food from a roving motorcycle vendor who visits the village periodically. But that takes money.

In recent years Sambo and her neighbors have earned extra cash by growing cassava for a company down the road. But no one likes this arrangement. At most, the villagers earn $3 a day. “I just get money, but everything goes to the company,” Sambo says. She’d rather have the food—and the sovereignty.

The people in this village are strong and resourceful; they have survived war and genocide. I ask the villagers to envision a secure future with enough to eat. How could such a life come to be?

Sambo dreams of a catchment pond that the village could share. Then every family could grow rice during the dry season. They wouldn’t have to work for the cassava company. Instead, they could raise fish to eat and sell.

Second, she would like an expert to teach the villagers how to grow fruits and vegetables more efficiently using the tools they already have. No one ever taught them to farm; they just follow the ways of their ancestors.

No one asks for money. Instead, they want knowledge and freedom. “I just want my own land to do my own thing,” Sambo says. “To help myself.”

But first, she needs a title. “If we don’t have that document,” she says, “maybe this will no longer be our land.”