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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Some of the desperate measures to show that the government is working!!! Unfortunately these policies don’t seem to be made with national consensus or discussion with experts. The policies right now should be to give confidence to the people on security, reduce corruption, accountability, justice, quantify development. Once some of these are met, the investor confidence gets a boost and economy can get back on its legs. Right now the market is booming for Guns(Taliban) not for grains…

Posted by Praveen | Report as abusive

The United States can help in this regard. It has the world’s largest agricultural industry and ultra modern at that. American agricultural experts could go to Pakistan and help them modernize their farms and increase the yield manifold. Pakistan with its fertile Punjab province can become a major exporter in a very short time if technology is brought in. They can even get American wheat seeds, cotton seeds etc that are of the highest quality. The US or Holland can donate healthy farm cows and dairy factories that produce milk, cheese and other dairy products on a mass scale for internal consumption and export. Here is one way the US can help Pakistan instead of throwing dollars from the planes. Pakistan has very enterprising and intelligent people and they can easily get their country up the scale in agricultural production. And it can help turn the country around. Terrorism is a result of feudal oppression, unemployment and frustration of the youth.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

A strong and significant middle class is a must for any country to develop. Unfortunately, Pakistan does not have middle class at all in their rural areas. After 1947, the feudal system never let the middle class shape. It seems like the agriculture land is owned by a handful of people whereas rest of the rural population is just a labour. I even read somewhere that the lone surviving terrorist of Mumbai attack (Kasab) ran away from home when he was a teenager because his poor father (who sold snacks in his village on his bi-cycle)could not buy him new clothes on Eid festival.
In contrast, I think India got a strong middle class even in rural population.
Now, I am really interested to know that the land which Pakistan’s investiment minister is talking about for sale/lease, how come it is not in use considering its agriculture value? And who is possessing it right now? What is it being used for? It is hard for me to believe that in highly populated and not-so-industrilized country like Pakistan,the land could be available for sale/lease without displacing people.

Posted by Nick | Report as abusive

I now see that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made two references to helping agriculture at her White House briefing yesterday: ce/Briefing-by-Secretary-of-State-Hillar y-Clinton-and-Press-Secretary-Robert-Gib bs-5-6-09/

“… as you know from our strategic review, we think it’s imperative to focus on the agricultural sector. We certainly intend to provide assistance with issues ranging from water rights to anti-erosion measures, to specific seeds that can grow alternative crops in Afghanistan, to continue to help the agricultural sector in Pakistan, as well,” she said.

Further on, she added:

“… then if you look at agriculture, we’re going to establish a training program, the Borlaug Fellows Training Program. You remember, Norm Borlaug was one of the architects of the Green Revolution, which transformed life in India and in other places. And we’re going to do intensive training with Pakistani and Afghani agricultural experts and researchers and policymakers. We’re going to establish a trilateral body to identify the cross-border water issues, one of the critical issues as to whether agriculture can be revitalized, particularly in Afghanistan.”

Interesting to see that farming is getting such high-level attention.


Posted by Myra MacDonald | Report as abusive

War on terrorism can only be won when an all round effort is made on all fronts. Military operations alone will not help. The US can definitely come up with a plan for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to build agricultural sector. The US should probably prompt the government in Pakistan to initiate a process that distributes land to the poor and takes them off the feudal grip. In addition, university systems, primary education infrastructure have to be developed from scratch in rural areas. The US, UK and their NATO allies should pledge for a 15-20 year plan for both countries that helps them progress in the core areas of food production, education etc. It has taken 30 years to destroy this region by continuous wars. In the case of Pakistan, cold war politics never allowed them to become a normal nation. It should take even longer to build them back. Religious fundamentalism, terrorism, warped mindset etc are results of cumulative backwardness. I hope Obama discussed this basic requirement with the leaders of the two countries. Empty stomachs and unemployed youth issues have to be addressed first. A plan must be made so that a steady and slow growth occurs in primary areas of nation building and it will take a long time. Nothing can be done over night. Pakistan’s elite class must be engaged in helping their poor majority. Agriculture is a very good starting point.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

We need to further engage with Pakistani leadership and strengthen them. Pakistan is a key ally in the region and losing Pakistan will automatically mean losing Afghanistan. Obama administration needs to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, control the Afghani-Pakistani border (southern) more and make sure that Pakistani nukes will not win up in the hands of extremist, something that can endanger whole world order, not just a security in the region.

Posted by David Dzidzikashvili | Report as abusive

60 percent of Pakistan is classified as unusable for forestry or agriculture consists mostly of deserts, mountain slopes, and urban settlements.
Only 21.9 million hectares land is cultivable & is exploited to the max., out of which around 70 percent of the cropped area was in Punjab, followed by perhaps 20 percent in Sindh, less than 10 percent in the North-West Frontier Province, and only 1 percent in Balochistan.
Scant rainfall over most of the country makes about 80 percent of cropping dependent on irrigation.
The Indus irrigation(which provides water to the fields that account for 90 percent of agricultural production) system design is a failure & continuous expansion of the irrigation system over the past century significantly altered the hydrological balance of the Indus River basin. Studies suggest that water wasted losses amount to 60%+ of the water entering the system. About 65 percent of the farmers held some 15 percent of the farmland in holdings & remaining 85% by less than 1% landlord elite.
Wonder what land are they offering to the Arabs for cultivation. Arid Baluchistan?

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

hmmm… another pak related topic….though the usual suspects.. umair, bulletfish, global watcher are all missing… is it because this article has nothing to do with nukes…or india bashing…?

Posted by rony | Report as abusive


On one hand Pakistan is spending so much militarily for “land of kashmir” , on the other it is willing to sell land to Gulf countries! I wonder a day will come when Pak may offer POK for sale..May be to India..hmmmm.. not sure.. May be to China.

So point is, would Pak remain a sovereign country if it sells part of land here and there in Pak to other countries.. Has something like this ever happened anywhere in the world? Can somebody point to it?

Posted by Nick | Report as abusive

What is compelling Pakistan to lease its land to Arab countries? I have read reports of some African countries do so. But they are short in man-power and technology. Pakistan is decent in both of them. Perhaps it lacks capital to invest but that is not compulsion enough to selling such vast tract. Is Taliban pushing them?

Posted by Virendra | Report as abusive

David Zeedzeecashwilly

— RIP! The terrorists can lay their hands on the nuke only on instructions from white hall to hand em over to them & nuke you on the sole command of Uncle Sam…

Posted by anup | Report as abusive

“What is compelling Pakistan…”

—Almost all Pakistani elite in the army & the political arena hold dual citizenship with large chunk of money & huge properties in the west, obviously they are also well aware of the high uncertainty & temporary nature of the powers they wield presently, so they simply gonna sell Pakistan piecemeal & take a flight when it’s over for them.

Posted by anup | Report as abusive


This Reuters story has an overview of land sales globally, based on a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute. The story also includes a link to the original IFPRI report.  /idUSTRE53S97N20090430

This article seems to have a lot of useful links to assessments on the value of land sales: lture/land-grabbing-the-end-of-sustainab le-agriculture.html

As far as I can see, the argument in favour is that it brings in much needed investment and technology; the argument against is that it primarily benefits those who own or lease the land rather than local people; and if it damages the surrounding environment, they will be even worse off.

Anup, thanks for your figures. Where did they come from?


Posted by Myra MacDonald | Report as abusive

Hi there rony! I am back!

So Pakistan is selling its land! So? What else is new? They already gave away a part of Kashmir to the Chinese. Are the Pakistani elite hoping that by selling large acres of land to the Arab countries that Uncle Sheikh Ali Baba Oil Money Bags will use the land to culivate crops to feed the displaced from the fighting in Swat and Bunar. This a joke!

-Pakistan has got Mr. 10 % as President with a begging bowl.
-Pakistan has lost 10% of its area to Taliban control.
-Pakistan has lost cricket as hosts.

What more do they want to lose?

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive


—U.S.Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress

Posted by anup | Report as abusive

We need to further engage with Pakistani leadership and strengthen them. Pakistan is a key ally in the region and losing Pakistan will automatically mean losing Afghanistan. Obama administration needs to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, control the Afghani-Pakistani border (southern) more and make sure that Pakistani nukes will not win up in the hands of extremist, something that can endanger whole world order, not just a security in the region.
– Posted by David Dzidzikashvili

David: This seems like a page out of the tarnscript of US president Speech.

Hilarious to read this: “endanger whole world order”.
It is not the terrorists thus far that has so much disturbed the world order, so far it is the US. Nukes have so far been used only once–Japan by US. How many civilians have been killed by the terrorists and how many by US? I have no count–my guess says US is the winner here.
I know my fellow Indian bloggers will start to feel uncomfortable. US citizens like you, far away from te reality, giving presidential speech on the blogs are doing no one any good.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive


Rony is a UFO which deserves to be ignored.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Pakistan should never sell or lease agricultural land to Saudis or any other foreign governments or corporations or individuals as it will be very detrimental for our own future needs of food as our population is growing at such a fast pace.

Food will be a more precious commodity than petrol & energy in future. So, we shall be able to export food to countries like Saudi Arab at higher prices in future. Let these Saudis & other countries pay more petro dollars to us through buying food from us, instead of giving them opportunity to grow their own food on our land. They have been squeezing quite a lot from us while selling petroleum to us at quite exorbitant rates, & making our labor work up there at such miserably low salaries. It will be their pay back time in future. So the government should not dare sell or lease such a precious land to anybody.

Only idiots won’t understand the real worth of farmland which it will hold in future & might like to sell by taking a few billion dollars. Even if they do sell there will be a time in future when we’ll grab it back from them.

Posted by pakistani 2020 | Report as abusive