In the spotlight

The new global land grabbers: Wall Street

Since the 2007-2008 financial crisis farmland has increasingly become an important financial asset for corporate investors, sparking both mass protests by farmer organizations and significant attention from international institutions. But while efforts to commodify farmland are not new, there are some marked differences in the latest chapter of the land grabbing story, posing new challenges, impacting different geographies, and offering opportunities for international and cross-sectoral solidarity.

New geographies, different tactics, same companies

Land grabbing in both the Global South and North is accelerating and spreading, often with financial links to institutional investors from the Global North. North American and European pension funds and university endowments are investing major funds in large-scale agriculture projects in regions such as the Brazilian Cerrado, where communities are displaced, land rights defenders are assassinated, and forests are burned for industrial agriculture [“Harvard and TIAA’s Farmland Grab in Brazil Goes up in Smoke.“]. Meanwhile, family farmers in Europe and North America continue to struggle through severely low prices and cuts to social safety nets, making them vulnerable to land grabbing by many of the same institutional investors.

While the exploitation of weak institutions and corruption is central to violent land grabbing in places like the Brazilian Cerrado, land grabbing in the Global North utilizes well-functioning institutions to underwrite predatory investment tactics. Financial firms like the US retirement fund TIAA and Harvard University’s endowment have spent tens of billions of dollars, much of it from pension funds of public sector workers like teachers, to acquire millions of hectares of farmland in places like Illinois and Mississippi in the United States. While TIAA has become the largest institutional owner of farmland in the world, their business goals are not focused on food production, but rather speculating on land and other essential farm inputs. While likely not explicitly illegal, companies’ targeting of farmers in financial distress is a predatory tactic that leads to farmers selling their only means of livelihood: their land.

Land grabbing in North America may increase dramatically in the coming years. Decades of ongoing institutional discrimination has left many black farmers with informal property titles and insecure land tenure that makes them particularly vulnerable to land speculators and investors [Atlantic]. Indigenous land remains under constant threat. Family farmers in general are struggling in North America, as agribusiness corporations get bigger and more powerful, and half of all farmland in the US and Canada is expected to change hands in the next 15 years as farmers retire. Without action, much of this land may end up in the hands of investors and corporations.

Pathways forward

For decades, farmer organizations and allies have advocated for key policy reforms to address land grabbing in the Global North and South, including: strengthening the land rights of marginalized communities (such as heirs property in the US along with land rights for indigenous communities and landless farmworkers); restricting corporate land ownership; and implementing policies to ensure family farmers receive fair prices to keep them on the land. Workers with pension funds, particularly in North America and Europe, can act in solidarity with farmers and peasants globally by ensuring their money is not fuelling land grabs and risky speculation. Together, these efforts will strengthen rural communities and protect workers’ financial stability.

More information on land grabbing by institutional investors here.