Land Grabbing

Kurt Langbein

Austra 2015, 94min.

Imagine an 85-year old grandmother in the Cambodian countryside. Alongside children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she represents generation after generation of smallholder farmers who have grown bananas, mango and melon in the Koh Kong province, in southwestern Cambodia. But, now it is over.


«Perhaps people who eat sugar also become bitter? » The rhetorical question is posed by an elderly woman, aimed at Buddhist monk Luon Sovath who is documenting how national sugar giant Phnom Penh Sugar is forcefully moving families from their villages. Sovath is one of the main characters in Kurt Langbein’s documentary Land Grabbing.

In the countryside, people have been making a living by small-scale farming. Any food surplus is sold on the local market, so they can buy rice and other necessary foodstuffs. But not anymore. The sugar producer is, assisted by local police forces, evicting large families from their homes before setting the houses on fire. They are not even allowed to bring with them their iron pots.

And, this is relevant for Norwegian consumers: The sugar which will be grown in the place where the small-scale farmers once lived, is shipped to European countries, toll-free, despite EU having been warned about the social costs involved in Cambodian sugar production.

Classic imperialism again. The scene in Langbein’s documentary is unfortunately well known. Land grabbing has been a phenomenon for a while. During the 2000s, land grabbing was an important issue for those wanting to shine a critical light on global turbo capitalism and injustice. What is new is that little has changed. There are indications that things have worsened. Calculations show that more than two million square kilometres topsoil has been hired out to global investors since 2000.

This exceeds all of Europe’s topsoil. International food producers gain square feet after square feet of topsoil in countries boasting good peat, low production costs and cheap price per square feet. It is all at the expense of the local population, smallholder farmers and the environment. In the longer run, it affects people’s subsistence, survival and destroys culture. It is often referred to as neo-colonialism or colonialism 2.0.

Ethiopian peppers in Dubai. German documentary veteran Langbein is, in other words, portraying an age-old problem. The fascinating new issue that Langbein brings to the table, is his global and versatile angle. This is not a lingering, longwinded anthropological film from one area about one people. The film skips from one world to the next.

We are not even told the name of the grandmother or several of the other participants. But this superficiality could also be a positive. During the 56 short minutes we visit all sides of the table – in several different corners of the world. We are in Romania talking to big German farmers who acquired enormous amounts (700, 000 hectares) of topsoil following the end of the Cold War. They view themselves as timely saviours of soil which was otherwise left fallow. We also meet the local smallholder farmers. They are displaced one by one – but this does not seem to affect the German enthusiasts of large operations.


We are in London at an international farming conference, and are explained how farming investments have taken off following the 2008 financial crisis. This is the ‘new wine’ for investors, and Africa south of the Sahara is considered the vintage wine among the investors. Thereafter, we visit Ethiopia, where peppers and tomatoes are harvested diligently by hard-working local women. They are searched daily at the exit gates to prevent them from smuggling vegetables out. «I have never tasted any of the vegetables we harvest, » says one of the women. Ethiopia is described as the perfect country for vegetable production. Here, «the climate is perfect, the soil is good and water resources plentiful».

The goal is here to deliver the vegetables to the most affluent markets in Africa and the Middle East. At Dubai’s five-star hotel Burj Al Arab, we meet the chef who explains how they soak all their vegetable in large vats of disinfectant, because, as the chef states «the vegetables arrive from all over the world. So we need to enforce strict hygiene».


We also swing by an Indonesian palm oil farm which uses half-militaristic, absurd working methods, the EU Parliament, a German supermarket and a biofuel producer in Sierra Leone – but we could have travelled anywhere in the world. The geographical jumping makes us mindful of the many invisible strings that dominate our shopping trollies and food baskets. And that Norwegians are as entangled in land grab politics as the rest of the world.

It is, regardless, refreshing to hear the other voices in this debate. Many of the powerful participants seem convinced that they are doing an important job, both locally, nationally and globally, all the while the interviews with the locals often indicate the contrary.

What is also interesting in today’s multi-polar world order, is that it is not that simple to pinpoint the good and the evil forces in this game. There are Danish and German investors in Romania, Vietnamese in Cambodia, and wealthy customers in the Middle East and Africa are targeted by the Ethiopian pepper producer. We also know that China is an extremely strong player in this global topsoil game.


Small-time solution. Despite this, the main perspective of land grabbing is critical. One of the most tenacious myths, according to one of the films main informants, the agronomist and farmer Felix zu Löwenstein, is that the world’s population growth requires industrial scale solutions within food production. Today, the world’s population counts well over 7.4 billion people.

According to the UN, this will reach ten billion sometime around 2050.

Löwenstein is a high profile critic of industrial farming who himself turned his 500-year old ancestral farm organic in 1985. His perspective is this: «People believe that we need industrial farming to provide food to the world, but forget that 70 percent of all food manufacturing is not produced this way. » He visits Ethiopian smallholder farmers who, alongside researchers, have developed new small-scale food production methods.

To the eco-agronomist, «smallholder farmers, urban farming and fisheries» are the solution to the food problem of the future. One of his main points is that smallholder farmers produce ten times the energy they consume, whilst industrial farming utilises ten percent of the energy they manufacture. Thus, the climate- and energy budget is better seen from the smallholder farmers’ point of view.

New Norwegian political demands? The Norwegian Government promises to use up to three billion kroner annually on deforestation measures in rainforest countries. This was the core issue of Norwegian climate politics over the last few years. The Norwegian climate initiative enters straight into the discussion around topsoil. Deforestation is closely linked to the land grab problem.

It is unclear how the Norwegian funds create any security measures to prevent land grabbing. It would be interesting to see how progressive Norwegian farming- and power politics would look if the main goal was to prevent land grabbing.

Earlier this year, we witnessed a gloomy example of ignorance, as troublesome aspects of global biofuel production was revealed. This is also one of the film’s topics, whereby local villages in Sierra Leone are displaced to produce the sugarcane used in biofuel. They are losing their pure water resources, and local handicraft traditions and farming skills are disappearing. All this despite the never-ending rows of good intentions from European developers and environmental politicians.

We also know, from the success of the electric car, that Norwegian consumer habits may change fast, and that Norway could be a trendsetter of new sustainable consumption. The question is, what political decisions need to be implemented to guarantee that the food that we eat – whether Danish sugar, soy-fed salmon or pork or Pakistani mangoes – do not break any human rights somewhere in the production cycle.

The elderly Cambodian woman did, in the end, achieve justice. We are told that, after strenuous fights and negotiations, the village population was finally allowed home. Struggle, activism and knowledge gathering do work, in other words. Documentaries, books and research which trail the global connections are therefore vital. These turn the invisible visible, and make us mindful of new and old unreasonable power relations. Despite this, it is important that these films are not unilaterally critical of everything to do with investing in African and Asian emerging economies. An Ethiopian pepper must, and can, be a positive, but the way it is produced, and its human and environmental costs need to be transparent.

Modern Times Review