Land monopoly and climate crisis: A look at Asia

BULATLAT FILE PHOTO Oil palm plantation in Opol, Misamis Oriental ( photo)

The people rising for climate justice necessitates the struggle to dismantle corporate monopoly control over land and resources and give humanity a fighting chance to survive and reverse the climate crisis.


Some closely following the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) say that the 27th session of its Conference of the Parties (COP27) puts more attention on food and agriculture than in previous years. For instance, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) noted that the climate gathering in Egypt features four pavilions and about 200 events on food and farming. But these are still outside official negotiations, where states do the actual policymaking and commitments.

Worst affected

It is apparent in the discussions that matter in the COP process that there is no meaningful focus on the role and accountability of corporate farming in warming the planet. The industrial food system (i.e., agriculture and land use/land-use change activities plus supply chain activities like retail, transport, consumption, fuel production, waste management, industrial processes and packaging) contributes about 34 percent to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with an estimated environmental cost of US$ 3 trillion annually. Yet, addressing and reversing the climate impacts of corporate farming through radical food systems transformation is not a priority among the COP27 negotiators.

For Asia, the urgency of the climate crisis cannot be overemphasised. Six of the ten worst affected countries by climate change in the past two decades are in Asia (i.e., Myanmar, Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, and Nepal). This year alone, heavy monsoon rains caused unprecedented flooding in Pakistan, affecting 33 million people and inflicting over US$ 30 billion in damages and economic losses. Consecutive typhoons – Noru and Nalgae – hit the Philippines in the two months leading to COP27. These disasters affected more than four million people, displaced more than 241,000, left more than 150 dead, and caused more than US$50 million in damages to agriculture alone.

Land monopoly, an indispensable requirement of corporate farming, creates favorable conditions for the climate crisis to persist and worsen. Corporate monoculture plantations, one of the most visible expressions of land monopoly since colonial times, are among the significant contributors to the existential crisis that the world faces today.

Massive deforestation

Big agribusiness firms are cutting down massive swathes of forests for conversion into industrial plantations and livestock grazing. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that agricultural expansion drove almost 90 percent of global deforestation in the past two decades. In Asia, nearly 80 percent of deforestation during the same period is due to conversion into croplands, mainly by corporate plantations, based on the UN body’s study.

Independent studies affirm this, such as the data compiled and analyzed by the Land Matrix (a collaboration of civil society, farmers’ groups, and academic research institutions) on large-scale land acquisitions. These refer to lands in low and middle-income countries acquired by foreign and local investors through purchase, lease or concession for agricultural production, timber extraction, carbon trading, industry, renewable energy production, conservation, and tourism. Their 2021 report noted that 964 land deals caused the deforestation of almost two million hectares between 2000 and 2019.

In East Asia and the Pacific, the Land Matrix reported that about 74 percent of the areas around the locations of land deals were still forested in 2000. By 2019, that number declined to 58 percent, mainly due to oil palm expansions in Malaysia and Indonesia and new agricultural frontiers in Cambodia, China, Laos, and Vietnam.

Clearing the forests releases the carbon dioxide (CO2) they store into the atmosphere, contributing to rising global temperatures. But according to one study, deforestation – which has already claimed 420 million hectares of forests in the last 30 years – can also affect temperatures through its effect on various physical processes of nature. For example, cutting down trees eliminates the forests’ ability to absorb water from the soil and release it into the air as moisture and cool the atmosphere.

Perpetuating plunder

Public pressure amid the absolute havoc the climate crisis wreaks forces rich countries and their corporations to recognize the climate impacts of deforestation, and many are committing to reviving the world’s forests. However, they deny the need to dismantle the market-oriented corporate farming model, which is a significant driver of deforestation. As such, these commitments become empty promises.

At COP27, the world’s largest transnational food companies led by Cargill, Bunge, and Archer Daniels Midland, among others, launched a roadmap to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains for soy, beef, and palm oil by 2025. But these companies, which have already made similar pledges in the past only to fall short, continue to be implicated in the massive destruction of forests, like Cargill in the Amazon.

Even worse, they use the climate crisis to legitimize and perpetuate resource grabbing, plunder, and land monopoly. One of the supposed climate solutions that big corporations tend to rally around is planting “new forests”. However, the problem is that these large-scale tree-planting efforts are often a pretext to promote corporate plantations. For example, 80 percent of the commitments under the so-called Bonn Challenge, one of the major global initiatives aiming to restore 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes, involve planting monoculture plantations or a limited mix of trees to produce specific products.

In Asia, a particular concern is the steady expansion of oil palm plantations, which, as noted by the Land Matrix report, is one of the primary culprits behind deforestation in the region. Based on another estimate, 45 percent of oil palm plantations were built in forest areas in Southeast Asia, considered the global hotspot of palm-driven deforestation.

Palm oil is considered the fastest-growing commodity crop worldwide, requiring an ever-expanding mass of arable lands and forests. FAO data shows that the size of land devoted to oil palm plantations in the past four decades ballooned by more than 571 percent – from 4.28 million hectares in 1980 to 28.74 million in 2020. More than 52 percent of the world’s oil palm lands are in Indonesia, 18 percent in Malaysia, and three percent in Thailand – the top three producers of palm oil globally. Indonesia’s oil palm lands, in particular, continue to expand at astronomical rates. In the past ten years, while expansion slowed in Malaysia and Thailand, oil palm plantations in Indonesia almost doubled from 8.39 million hectares in 2010 to 15 million in 2020.

Climate justice vs land monopoly

Corporate plantations – motivated by profits for their investors that include the world’s wealthiest people and largest investment firms from mostly the industrialized countries – produce commodities dictated by the global market’s needs, not by the food security requirements and overall development agenda of mostly the underdeveloped countries and local communities where they are built often in violent ways. These big capitalists and finance oligarchs are oblivious to their operations’ harsh socioeconomic and environmental impacts.

Aside from degrading or destroying the forests to establish monoculture, export-oriented industrial farms, corporate land monopolies also perpetuate the use of massive amounts of climate-warming fossil fuels by promoting harmful agrochemicals like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and encouraging long supply chains. It is not a coincidence that as corporate plantations, agrochemicals such as pesticides have also soared by 80 percent in the past three decades.

Agroecological, localized, and diversified food systems offer sustainable and climate-friendly alternatives, as much evidence suggests, but ultimately, decisions on how to use and manage the world’s forests and farmlands for the benefit of the greatest majority without harming the people and planet rest on the question of who effectively controls these resources. From colonialism to modern imperialism today, such control has been taken away from the indigenous and peasant communities, grabbed and monopolized by and for commercial interests.

The people rising for climate justice necessitates the struggle to dismantle this corporate monopoly control over land and resources and give humanity a fighting chance to survive and reverse the climate crisis.

The author is the coordinator of the Food Sovereignty Program of PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP) and its “No Land, No Life” campaign against land grabbing.

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