The plight of farmers and villagers in poor nations being displaced by their own governments in order to let European investors cash in on the rising demand for food is the subject of Kurt Langbein’s thought-provoking documentary. It is an uncomfortable watch, but then that’s the point: to shine a light on practices to which the EU have seemingly turned a blind eye, because there is no political desire to stop cheap food from being imported and fast profits being made.
The amount of territory covered in the film is astonishing: Langbein travels from Cambodia to Romania to Ethiopia to Dubai as he witnesses the process of crops being harvested, packed transported, unloaded and finally served up at a plush hotel in the Middle East. It’s not simply a question of the rising global population that has fuelled the demand for agricultural land; it’s the demand in the West for fresher, better looking and better tasting food. The contrast between the lavish dishes being served in Dubai (though it could just as well be London or Paris) and the meagre existence of the African and Asian farmers being forced to supply the goods is a depressing one.
Cambodia’s government is singled out as guilty of walking all over its own people…
The film drops in on a business conference in London, as delegates talk about the potential for significant returns in this new era of booming food prices. Investors have spotted this trend, predicting that it’s a pretty safe long term investment. Langbein contrasts this with the story of Ethiopian villagers struggling to make ends meet with the pitifully low wages paid at the farms built near their villages, the land having been leased at a miniscule rate to foreign companies.
The rich First World enjoying its existence at the expense of the Third is nothing new, of course. Neither is the suggestion that this commercial invasion is a new form of colonialism, with companies and investors replacing armies and politicians. What perhaps is new is the idea that the unpleasant business of acquiring land for intensive agriculture has been outsourced to that country’s own government, where it can deal with the displaced locals in its own way without apparently attracting too much unwanted attention. Cambodia’s government in particular is singled out by Langbein as guilty of walking all over its own people in order to boost their coffers, as seen through the eyes of a local monk who wants to bring their desperate situation to the world’s attention.
The defence trotted out by some of the company representatives in the film – that they bring employment, investment and improved farming methods to these countries – looks increasingly flimsy, though some of these benefits have clearly materialised. The environmental impact is a another matter altogether; rain forest is allowed to be torn down in favour of ever larger palm oil plantations and biofuel crops in the name of ‘sustainability’ (a term with plenty of elasticity, it seems). One European farmer points out the fallacy of cutting down trees in one country in order to reduce carbon emissions in another. Langbein’s film doesn’t offer any easy answers, but it does illuminate a subject that will become ever more pressing over the next few years.
LAND GRABBING screens on 7 September at 17.30 at APH