Pakistan’s farmland sales: a fatal folly?

May 6, 2009

Any student of history will tell you that a recurring feature of 20th century revolutions and civil wars was conflict over land ownership, driven by the resentment of the rural poor against the concentration of agricultural wealth in the hands of the elite. (Cuba and Vietnam, where Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh picked up support by championing farm reform, are good places to start.)

So Pakistan’s plans to sell farmland to rich Gulf investors deserve serious attention, even if land ownership does not have the same ability to grab headlines as its nuclear weapons.

Waqar Ahmed Khan, the Federal Minister of Investment, said last month Pakistan was offering one million acres of farmland for lease or sale to countries seeking to develop food supplies, and was holding talks with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Arab states. He said all land up for sale or lease was currently unused and promised to hire a security force of 100,000 men, funded by foreign aid, to protect their investments.

His comments prompted a column in U.S. website The National Interest, which argued that the farmland sales would serve as a recruitment tool for Islamist militants who have already picked up support by championing the cause of Pakistan’s rural poor against the feudal elite which dominates the country.

The devil, as usual, will be in the details, but the following obvious questions spring to mind.

What does it mean for Pakistan’s fractured society?

In an article in the Huffington Post, Eric Margolis became the latest to argue that the battle against Islamist militants in Pakistan’s north-west is in danger of morphing into a much wider conflict – ”a national revolution in Pakistan against the western-backed feudal oligarchy that has ruled it since 1947.”  If correct, then any perception that the rich were benefitting from farmland sales at the expense of the poor would only stoke this anger further. 

 An editorial in the Daily Times says that “despite the blatant forms of exploitation that keep occurring due to skewed land holding patterns in our rural areas, it was disappointing that major political parties did not squarely take up the issue of land reforms in their manifestoes prior to the 2008 general elections. Conversely, instead of trying to take concrete steps to empower the rural poor, the current government is now trying to lease or sell large tracts of agricultural land to Arab states, in lieu of attracting foreign investment to Pakistan.”

“Government officials claim that the land being offered to the Arab nations is not under cultivation, therefore there is no threat of displacement of indigenous communities, or erosion of local food sovereignty. However, the environmental hazards posed due to deforestation, land degradation and increased water consumption also need to be taken into account before making such confident claims,” the editorial said.

Dawn newspaper reported that the provincial government in Balochistan was putting the brakes on plans to sell farmland to Arab investors. However, the unnamed experts it quoted appeared to be divided between arguing that farmland sales would bring much needed investment and modern management techniques to Pakistani agriculture and questioning the details of how the scheme would be implemented – rather than opposing the idea outright.

So what kind of farming would outside investors bring to Pakistan?

Modern, intensive farming methods are high on productivity and low on labour — suggesting there would be few employment opportunities for the rural poor other than to guard the food that is to be shipped out of the country — unless the scheme includes parallel investment in infrastructure and agriculture-related business like food processing.

Environmentalists also complain that intensive farming usually relies heavily on the use of fertilisers and pesticides, polluting the surrounding environment, and by clearing large tracts of land can contribute to soil erosion and, in some places, desertification.  So depending on how the scheme is implemented, Pakistani farmers could suffer, rather than gain, from the expected influx of modern farming methods.

And what about the demand on water?

Since the government says it plans to sell or lease farmland which is not currently being used, the demand on water is likely to increase. Yet Pakistan already faces water shortages, partly due to its rising population. Global warming, which is slowly melting the Himalayan glaciers which feed the country’s rivers, is likely to make water supplies more erratic, increasing flooding and reducing further the availability of groundwater for farming.

And as discussed in previous posts, here and here, water scarcity is likely to increase tensions with India about the use of water from rivers they share in divided Kashmir.

It’s too early yet to judge how the scheme would work. And in this article in Britain’s Independent newspaper, David Hallam, the deputy director of the trade and markets division at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, was quoted as cautioning against making over-hasty judgments about global farmland sales as a whole. ”This could be a win-win situation or it could be a sort of neo-colonialism with disastrous consequences for some of the countries involved,” he said. “I really do have an open mind to whether this new development is positive or not.”

What is clear, however, is that in a country like Pakistan that has been turned into a tinderbox, every spark is potentially explosive.

(Pictures: Picking cotton in Multan; harvesting wheat outside Lahore, and swimming in the Indus)

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