Say no to land-grab

This Article was published in
The Frontier Post (November 06, 2009)

Sahibzada Hussain Mohi-ud-Din Qadri

At a time when the media attention remains focused on the new developments in the context of Pak-US relations and domestic politics, another issue of serious import pregnant with graver implications has, unfortunately, failed to get the kind of response it deserved from the media, civil society organisations, lawyers and opinion leaders on the whole. The news have been doing the round in a past few months that cash-rich Gulf states have embarked on “agricultural joint venture” by colluding with the high and mighty in Islamabad. “Agricultural joint venture” and corporate agricultural farming are basically euphemism for the local land grabbing on the strength of power of the purse. According to details revealed by the Saudi media, 6 million hectares of land has already been sold out, whereas the promise of sale of one million hectares of more land has been made. The production of these lands would start in 2010.

A newspaper based in Abu Dhabi has revealed that UAE firms have hired about 16,187 hectares of land in Pakistan’s Balochistan province for an estimated $40 million to produce food for their population back home. A delegation is said to have held meetings with Balochistan and Sindh chief ministers to explore the possible purchase of about 12,140 hectares in Shikarpur, Karkan, Sukkur, Thatta and Badin. Similarly, Market Access Promotion (MAP) Services Group, a Bahrain company, plans to develop 10 model dairy and livestock farms in Pakistan during 2008-10. A Qatari aims to acquire Kollurkar farm in Punjab, a deal, which is likely to dislocate about 25,000 villagers. The Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) is also creating a $566 million special investment to purchase foreign land to produce wheat and rice for the country. Likewise, the UAE also held talks with Pakistan last June for purchase of $400-500m worth of farmland of 100,000-200,000 acres in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Details are under the process of finalisation. To add insult to injury, the land being ‘leased’ under the pretext of ‘agricultural joint venture’ happen to be precious fertile farmlands having access to water. The produce grown here would be taken to other countries for making up the food deficiency.

There are also reports suggesting that the investors have also requested for exemption from the export restrictions on the foodgrain produced here. In order to protect the farmlands, a special security force would be set up, which would extend protection and security but the question arising in mind is against whom? The above-mentioned facts present a scary scenario. This policy of land-grab would deal a severe blow to the agriculture sector in Pakistan, which is already in ramshackle state. Agriculture, which is backbone of Pakistan’s economy contributing 25% of GDP, employing 47% of workforce, contributing 67% to industrial production and accounting for 67% of export earning, would be destroyed to an irreparable extent. With the best of the lands being sold out and already scarce resource of water being used for them, it would lead to not only reduction in our annual food production but would also create class discrimination with lethal effects for social fabric of our society. The poor farmers and peasants, who solely depend on agriculture for their sustenance, would be the worst-hit stratum of society. The systematic policy of land-grab with the full connivance of the Pakistani rulers heralds the beginning of a new era of Neo-Colonialism. At a time when the entire world is faced with the prospect of severe food shortages, it is high time that the powers that be in Islamabad formulated consistent policy aimed at ensuring food security. This, in turn, warrants the importance of agriculture as a bastion for ensuring economic development of the country.

Pakistan can not only feed its own people through broad-based reforms in the agricultural sector but can also earn precious foreign exchange through export of the agricultural products. What it requires is the political will and correct prioritization of national agenda, something our successive rulers have failed in managing to the detriment of the nation. The government’s act of ‘selling’ fertile lands to the foreigners is nothing but a crime. This way of ‘agricultural corporate farming’ spells disaster for the less privileged sections of society whose sole dependence remains on agriculture. There will be massive unemployment and the resultant urbanisation in case such deals mature. Thousands of the poor families would get displaced. Instead of adopting this route, the government is well advised to undertake land reforms based on the premise of giving lands to the landless peasants. According to an assessment, 20 million hectares of land, owned by the government, is without cultivation. If 10 million families are allotted 10 acres of land, the entire land would come under cultivation. It would take care of unemployment problem besides enhancing the agricultural output.

There should be trade deals with other countries and no one can object to them in his right mind provided they are mutually beneficial to the parties concerned. Foreign investment should be welcome as it can be used for development of agricultural infrastructure and expansion of livelihood options for those associated with the profession. Pakistan can ink Free Trade Agreements with the Arab countries. The injection of resources in this key sector of national economy would not only reduce the cost of cultivation but also enhance productivity, which in turn would take care of food needs of the friendly countries. It should be hoped that the good sense prevails in the end and the government reviews its policy in this regard.