Opposition mounts to Pakistani farmland sale plan

September 15, 2009

Pakistan is pushing ahead with a plan to sell or lease agriculture land to foreign investors even as opposition grows at home.  A Saudi delegation is due in the country at the end of Ramadan this month for further talks on a plan to lease an area of land more than twice the size of Hong Kong, a Pakistani official told Reuters this month.

The Saudis are looking to boost their food security and Pakistan will presumably will reap monetary benefits in return. But what about Pakistan’s own food security in the longer term, All Things Pakistan asked in a recent post.

A stampede  for food in Karachi on Monday, although not related, underscored Pakistan’s own vulnerabilities and the plight of some of the nation’s desperately poor. Eighteen women and children died iin the stampede that erupted when a local businessman was handing out wheat flour among hundreds of poor women gathered in a narrow lane.

Those were the destitute, but giving away rich land to foreigners to cultivate and take the produce to their homeland will ultimately hit the ordinary Pakistani, the small farmer and those who indirectly depend on farming for their livelihood, critics are warning.

Robert Schubert in a piece for Food and Water Watch says it has been recognised in other parts of the world that such a “land grab”  harms local communities by dislodging smallholder farmers, aggravating rural poverty and food insecurity. Many of the land purchases comprise tens of thousands of acres which are then turned into single-crop farms – and these dwarf the small-scale farms common in the developing world, where nearly nine out of 10 farms (85 per cent) are less than five acres.

Giving away land carries an unhappy connotation across South Asia, perhaps more than in other parts of the world. And in Pakistan’s case, at this difficult point in its history, it raises even more painful questions.

To many it is yet another assault on the nation’s sovereignty. “With the US increasingly occupying Pakistan with their covert and overt armed presence, and the Gulf states taking over our rich agricultural lands, our rulers are voluntarily making us a colony again – as we were under the British who used our men to fight their wars and our cheap labour to ship the finished produce back to Britain! Have we come full circle after 62 years of our creation?” said defence expert Shireen M. Mazari. 

The Dawn wrote in an editorial headlined “Country for Sale” that the government stood in violation of a UN General Assembly resolution on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources. It said the government had moved ahead with the plan without running it past parliament and it would do grievous damage to farmers.  And it quoted a recent study which identified Pakistan as one of the countries at “extreme risk” in terms of food security. “This is the time to help local farmers and landless peasants, not wealthy foreigners and their food needs,” it said.

And all this is being played out against the backdrop of the militancy raging across the country. Public discontent works to the militants advantage and they could use this to bolster support, as discussed in an earlier post on the same issue.

Or it could lead to fresh upheaval. Business Monitor Intelligence said such deals had fallen apart in other parts of the world because of local resistance. It cites the case of Madagascar where a plan to lease a huge tract of agriculture land to a Korean company likely contributed to the downfall of the president in March.

{Photographs of farmers in Multan and in Swabi in the northwest]

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