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Terra Madre: ‘Land-Grabs’ Now Extend To Oceans Too

Alice Waters sits between Carlo Petrini and Naseegh Jaffer in the front row at Terra Madre's opening ceremony. The person in red behind Waters is a food maker from Colombia who is in traditional dress. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Alice Waters sits between Carlo Petrini and Naseegh Jaffer in the front row at Terra Madre's opening ceremony. The person in red behind Waters is a food maker from Colombia who is in traditional dress. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Farmers in Africa who trade their farmlands for mobile phones or even a bicycle become the unwitting victims of corporate greed. That’s the word from speakers at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial event held in Turin, Italy. The practice of “land-grabbing” by multinational corporations isn’t new, but the fact that the concept is being extended to oceans and fisheries is more recent, according to presentations at the global conference.

At the event, people from food-producing communities across the globe are brought together under one roof. So you’re as likely to come across the lofty figure of a camel-herder from Chad as you are a group of female cocoa-growers from the Amazon, with their colorfully embroidered dresses and hair ribbons. African farm workers from Mali’s Dogon, swathed in the bold patterns of tie-dyed indigo, smile with South Korean Buddhist monks — with shaved heads and wearing pale grey — whose Temple Food pop-up was one of the event’s culinary hits.

Terra Madre is not just a convivial get-together, though that’s part of the excitement. Carlo Petrini, Slow Food Internationals founder and president, had the radical idea 10 years ago to expand the Italian food fair, Salone del Gusto, to enable real-time, real-life exchanges between hundreds of people from more than 150 countries. In a rousing address at Terra Madre’s opening ceremony, he underlined the event’s serious side.

“What does it mean not to be alone, but to be part of a global community?” he asked. “If Slow Food is the rope running through this network, your food communities are its knots. You are the real defenders of biodiversity. We have over 7,000 plants that can feed the planet, but our food system is based on just 30 or 40 of them. Don’t be shy or afraid to protect an unknown vegetable: This network of active defenders is the only valid testament for the future.”

His speech touched on the some of the big themes at the core of Terra Madre’s working sessions: family farms and climate change; the “10,000 Food Gardens for Africa” project; indigenous peoples and sustainability; school food; the politics of farmers markets; food waste; secret international food treaties; animal rights; and land-grabbing.

“Seventy percent of the world’s food is being produced on 25% of the world’s farmland by small and medium farms,” Eric Holt-Giménez, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, said as he opened the large conference on Land and Ocean-Grabbing. “Contrary to what we are often told, we currently produce one and a half times more food than is needed to feed our planet. There have been record harvests recently, yielding record profits. Yet there is record hunger. In particular, it is women who are going hungry. Indeed, 70% of the world’s hungry are women farmers. Hunger is due to injustice, not a lack of food.

“An area five times the size of Italy — 212 million acres — has been stolen by corporate food regimes in the last seven years from peasants in Africa and other developing nations,” he continued. “The term ‘land-grabbing’ may be new, but states and other groups have been taking foreign land and resources for centuries. The result continues to be the dispossession of the indigenous people whose lands have been grabbed.”

During the conference, many stories were told about recent versions of this phenomenon. In Africa, poorly educated farmers are being offered “gifts” in exchange for their land: mobile phones, fancy watches, even a bicycle is sometimes enough to convince local people to part with land that has been in their family for generations, and without which they are unable to feed their communities.

Ana Paula Tauacale. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Ana Paula Tauacale. Credit: Carla Capalbo

But who is buying this land, and why? In sub-Saharan Africa, as Ana Paula Tauacale, vice president of the Mozambique small farmers’ union (UNAC) explained, it is the multinationals with a vested interest in corporate models of farming that are snatching the land from local peasants without negotiation.

“People are being evicted and relocated to infertile lands where nothing grows so the corporations can plant genetically modified monocultures, look for gas or build trains to transport the plundered natural resources,” she said. “We have petitioned and tried to block them, and we’ll fight to the death if necessary.”

In South Africa, Ethiopia and Central America, communal land is being “bought” by investors acting on behalf of the Chinese and other nations in the rush for fertile land and extractable minerals.

Land is also being seen as the latest commodity for capitalist investors. Holt-Giménez explains: “There’s a crisis of capitalism today, with lots of cash around but very little to invest in. So if you can grab land and fisheries now, you’ll reap the benefit in five years or so, when their values go up.”

Ocean-grabbing is another aspect of this trend, though the concept is not well known. As Naseegh Jaffer, Secretary General of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples in South Africa, explained, the term covers a range of situations. They include the draining of natural habitats like mangroves in Ecuador to build shrimp farms, the pollution of traditional fishing waters by power stations and industry, and the more complex result of the privatization of the world’s fisheries.

A slide from Eric Holt-Giménez. Credit: Carla Capalbo

A slide from Eric Holt-Giménez. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Brett Tolley, a fourth-generation fisherman from New England and community organizer of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), explained: “The real tsunami is a global strategy to transform fisheries policy from publicly managed access into privatized property, effectively displacing independent family fishermen, putting enormous pressure on the marine environment, and ultimately turning fish into commodities for the international market. This is often done in the name of conserving fishing stocks, but the results can be disastrous for small-scale fishing communities.”

Only through sharing knowledge and solidarity can today’s Davids — be they family farmers or indigenous fishing communities — hope to stand up to the food world’s Goliaths. In this battle, Terra Madre is a great place to start.

Main photo: Alice Waters sits between Carlo Petrini and Naseegh Jaffer in the front row at Terra Madre’s opening ceremony. The person in red behind Waters is a food maker from Colombia who is in traditional dress. Credit: Carla Capalbo



Zester Daily contributor Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer who has been based in Italy for more than 20 years. Her book "Collio: Fine Wines and Foods From Italy's North-East" recently won the André Simon prize for best wine book, and her website is carlacapalbo.com.

5 COMMENTS
  • Julia della Croce 10·31·14

    I’m very grateful to you, Carla, for reporting back from Terra Madre with this. Land grabs are serious threats to the lives of small farmers and indigenous populations all over the world. South America is also experiencing this as the multinationals snatch lands of indigenous peoples who can’t necssarily come up with the deeds the corrupt legal systems demand from them as proof that they are entitled to keep acreage they have farmed for millennia.

  • Julia della Croce 10·31·14

    P.s. Thank you, also, for bringing to light what so few people who are conflicted about GMO realize: World hunger is not due to lack of food, it is due to injustice. Land grabs are much to the point.

  • Carla Capalbo 10·31·14

    Thanks Julia. I must say that it’s issues like these that keep me wanting to write about food. We as food writers (and reporters) have important roles to play in telling these and other stories. Terra Madre is full of such inspiring, courageous people that we too must play our part in spreading the word about what is happening to them and what they are doing. It can help to make a difference, because land-grabbing will be made more difficult for those who are doing it (and that’s many of the so-called ‘civilized’ countries around the world) if we can assert moral pressure on them.

  • olivia lousada 11·1·14

    This work is completely stunning on any level, I have just read this and am quite speechless.
    beyond great admiration and humility. What a ground swell of human power at its best. I spend my time trying to help farm people’s souls but working the land and food is doing that and so much more. putting man in touch with air, water, and land, responding to need rather than greed,
    creating community rather than stars or corperations.

    x Olivia

  • Gabriella della Croce 11·25·14

    Great article!

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