It’s obvious why investors are eyeing new opportunities for food production: With the world’s population at 7 billion and headed for more than 9 billion by 2050, there is a growing demand for food at the same time that overexploitation has depleted the world’s resources. Take Saudi Arabia, for example, where the government has spent $40 billion to create what Pearce calls “geometric oases” of wheat, fruit and dairy farms. The Saudis have almost drained their aquifers, which is why in 2010 they inked contracts to grow rice in Cambodia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam and now rank as the world’s second-largest rice importer.
These contracts often clash with the informal arrangements that local villagers have lived by for years. Pearce describes how oil billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Al Amoudi aims to ship a million tons of rice grown in Gambella back to Saudi Arabia, while Indian entrepreneur Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, who already created the world’s largest rose-growing business in Ethiopia, has bought up land surrounding in the neighboring village of Iliya. While some area residents now work for these foreign farming operations, they’re furious with the curtailment of their access to historic farmland. As Pearce writes: “In reality, very little land in the world today is unclaimed or unused. When Karuturi and Al Amoudi call the land they are occupying ‘empty’ and ‘virgin,’ they are as misguided as the colonial adventurers who came this way a century before. To the locals, every inch of the land is owned.”
Peace portrays some of the environmentalists who are creating terrestrial reserves, including Patagonia’s Doug and Kris Tompkins and the World Wildlife Fund, as insensitive to the concerns of men and women who have spent generations sharing the landscape with wild creatures there. While this scrutiny of green groups is welcome, these sections are in many ways the book’s weakest ones. The chapter on Patagonia seems cursory, as Pearce looks at how clothing magnates like the Tompkinses and Carlo and Luciano Benetton, along with media mogul Ted Turner, have snapped up wilderness at the far reaches of South America. Although these buyers may have a good intention — to prevent ruinous development — members of the largest remaining indigenous group, the Mapuche, have taken the Benettons to court in an effort to reclaim ancestral land. The court sided with the Benettons, but the Mapuche rejected an offer to resettle them elsewhere in Patagonia. Pearce doesn’t convey the emotional stakes there or how these real estate moves are reshaping the region.
Meanwhile, Pearce’s more detailed examination of the WWF’s role in South African conservation dwells too much on actions by the group’s donors and staffers in the 1960s and ’70s. Pearce minimizes the impact of humans on wildlife habitat in Africa, and fails to fully capture how non-profits have changed their tactics and now collaborate more closely with African nomadic tribes in pursuing conservation. And as admirable as the book’s sweep is, several of the stories told are similar, and Pearce might have been better off giving fewer examples with more depth to the ones chosen.
But these are quibbles. In “The Land Grabbers,” Pearce has produced a powerful piece of journalism that illuminates how the drive for expanded food production is transforming the planet. Anyone who cares where her next meal is coming from should read it.
is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post and the author of “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.”