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».


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