Tag Archives land grabbing

Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

The violent Israeli encroachment and annexation of Palestinian land is compromising the future of the West Bank and putting its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. Palestinians are resisting both annexation and the Covid-19 pandemic by returning to their land and cultivating it, with the support of social justice movements. A concrete example of their contribution to Palestine’s rich agrarian heritage is a seed bank, whose hardy indigenous seeds are feeding people in the short term and protecting the climate and defending territory for generations to come.

Olives in the hand of an old woman
Image Credit: Salena Tramel

It has not been an easy year for Palestinians, if there ever was such a thing. With the turn of a new decade in January, the U.S. administration unveiled the paradoxically branded calling for Israel to unilaterally annex about a third of the West Bank. Then the coronavirus slipped through the checkpoints into Bethlehem in March, sending millions of Palestinians into lockdown. And in April, Israel formed a unity government with an eye on the immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley in direct violation of international law.

The land grab is set to be pushed through this month, and many Palestinians worry that it could go largely unnoticed as the world’s attention is focused squarely on defeating the Covid-19 pandemic and curbing its economic fallout.

Palestine is often presented as an anomaly in global politics. Apologists of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories have been able to effectively present a narrative of exceptionalism by emphasising the relatively small size of this hotly contested corner of the Mediterranean, insisting that there are irreconcilable religious divisions. The fight against Covid-19 points to similar dynamics as the Israeli government has received lavish praise for its response to the pandemic within its own borders while letting it spill over into the occupied territories essentially unchecked.

In the context of crisis that has recently been compounded by the looming annexation plan and the health threats presented by the pandemic, social justice movements in the agricultural sector have elevated their struggles to new levels. Key among these endeavours are the protection of natural resources such as land, water, and seeds, as well as the ongoing struggle for the recognition of multiple forms of Palestinian sovereignty.

“Our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been to urge our people to go back to their lands and cultivate,” said Amal Abbas* of the Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC), a small-scale food producers’ movement representing some 20,000 peasant farmers and fishers in the West Bank and Gaza. This Palestinian version of sheltering in place mirrors UAWC’s broader strategy of resisting occupation and annexation, work that it has been doing since 1986.

Settler colonialism, the invasive process that seeks to replace an indigenous population with an external one, has its own Kafkaesque set of rules upholding it in the Israeli legal system. An important example of this is a law that stipulates that if land is not worked for three years, it automatically becomes [Israeli] state land. The Israeli military has gone to great lengths to fold as much “idle” Palestinian land as possible into the architecture of the state. This law is used in part to justify the establishment and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements by means of violent evictions, home demolitions, the confiscation of cultivated agricultural land, and the separation wall.

Palestinian human rights defenders are working to flip this narrative and the overarching political project it sustains on its head. Farmers and rural workers in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip—just like anywhere else—have been longstanding agents of social change, and for this reason are among the most targeted sectors of Palestinian society.

This slow form of violent encroachment, together with the fast-tracked one of annexation that is on the Israeli parliamentary table with strong U.S. support, puts the future of the West Bank and its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. “The Israeli military has been taking advantage of our current emergency situation and accelerating its actions,” offered Amal.

Some of the most egregious actions taken by Israeli authorities in the current context of pandemic have occurred in the Jordan Valley, which is precisely the area they seek to annex. This area already falls under the classification of Area C, meaning that it is part of the more than 60% of the West Bank that is under full Israeli civilian and military control. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Area C is rich in natural resources such as underground water and fertile growing land. Not only is the Jordan Valley the unequivocal agricultural jewel of Area C, but it is also a strategic border with Jordan and a gateway to the Arab countries of the greater Levant.

Public services are in short supply for the Jordan Valley’s majority Bedouin population. That is why movements of farmers and workers like UAWC are filling that gap, providing basic services like water, sanitation, education, seeds, food, and nutrition. Even these services face relentless and aggressive opposition. For instance in late March, the Israeli military destroyed an emergency coronavirus field clinic that Palestinians were in the process of erecting in the northern Jordan Valley.

Despite these threats, UAWC and other Palestinian grassroots organisations visit elderly people and pregnant women in mobile clinics, distribute educational and protective supplies, and construct rooftop and urban gardens across diverse communities. This coronavirus crisis response work has largely been successful because it is a reflection of the kind of work Palestinian social movements continually engage in throughout the ongoing crises that occur under military occupation.

“Some of the best work that we are doing to fight off the virus and resist the annexation is through our seed bank,” said Amal. UAWC has maintained a seed bank since 2003; in it they safeguard rare heirloom Palestinian seeds that have been carefully passed down from one generation to the next. These seeds and the food sources they produce have a multiplicity of purposes. “Not only do our indigenous seeds make it easier to return to our land and protect it through cultivation,” Amal explained, “they hardly use any water and shield us from climate change.” She added: “And with so many still locked down because of Covid-19, continuous access to seeds allows people to feed their families and neighbours when it is unsafe to access food via the marketplace.”

UAWC insists on the importance of internationalism and solidarity in normalising the plight of the Palestinian small-scale food producers it represents. It is a member of the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina, which has taken a strong stand against colonialism and corporate control of agriculture and is active in 81 countries. Maintaining that important political relationship has allowed Palestinian activists the opportunity to host learning exchanges in their territories and also participate in those that take place abroad.

“Together with La Vía Campesina, we are using this opportunity to prove to the whole world that the global health care and food systems are not working and put forth our solution of agroecology as an alternative to the neoliberal model,” Amal explained.

Our contributions to the food sovereignty movement as Palestinians can help people understand that the occupation is about control over natural resources just like most other land grabs – Amal

Certainly, the militarised Israeli conquest of Palestinian territory has its own history, but it is also indicative of settler colonial processes that have taken place elsewhere, such as in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. As this next phase of annexation plays out in the West Bank, against the distracting backdrop of the pandemic, these connections are critical. Far from an anomaly of the global politics of natural resources, Palestine has encapsulated them in a microcosm.

* Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality

This article was originally published on Open Democracy and has been reposted with permission of the author.

About the author:

Salena TramelSalena Fay Tramel is a journalist and PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs, climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements.

Can technology ‘decode’ developmental problems? by Oane Visser and Manasi Nikam

This article presents an interview with Dr. Oane Visser, Associate Professor in Rural Development Studies, at the International Institute of Social Studies. It shows ways in which technology can be used to address developmental problems. Dr. Visser coached six teams in a technological challenge about the ‘prevention of land grabbing’.

The Municipality of The Hague and the Data Science Initiative organized a hackathon for Peace, Justice and Security in November, 2018. It was supported by the International Criminal Court, NATO, Red Cross, World Vision and Asser Institute. The hackathon focused on creating innovative solutions using data science for problems focused on humanitarian disasters, fake news, evidence, emergency funds and land grabbing.[1] About 27 teams from 20 nationalities participated in this event. Monkey Code, one of the teams coached by Dr. Visser, won and was rewarded a cash prize of 10,000 Euros.

Here follows an excerpt from a conversation between Dr. Visser and Manasi Nikam.

Manasi: What was the purpose of the hackathon?

Oane: There are different kinds of hackathons. Often these are commercial, but this hackathon had societal and developmental relevance. The Hague being a city of peace, justice and security cannot promote these ideas without engaging with new technologies. The basic objective of the hackathon was to enable people sitting anywhere in the world to participate in designing solutions to developmental problems.

Manasi: What role did you play in the hackathon?

Oane: There were five different challenges, one of which was on preventing land grabbing. Asser Institute requested me to lead together the six teams that participated in this challenge. I guided these teams to understand the context of land grabbing and the kind of data they can collect.

Manasi: Can you tell me something about the winning team?

Oane: The winning team was Monkey Code. It is a tradition in hackathons to come up with funny names. The team had young staff members belonging to a Canadian, multinational ICT company.

Manasi: Just out of curiosity, how is it that a multinational company was interested in a hackathon that had social relevance?

Oane: The company does a lot of work for governments such as mapping migration patterns. So, they do have an interest in social issues.

Manasi: Can you tell us something about the tool that the winning team developed?

Oane: Yes. They combined existing databases such as satellite data, social media data, be it Twitter, real estate news groups and local media etc. to develop an algorithm that aims to predict areas in the world that are vulnerable to land grabbing.

Manasi: Do you think deploying technical solutions depoliticizes developmental problems?

Oane: Yes and no. There are some actors who promote techathons, big data, algorithms and think that they can do away with the difficult questions. But there are also others who acknowledge that one technical solution cannot solve the problem. In reality, a lot of politics comes in. For example: What does the algorithm focuses on? How do you define the problem? Who controls the solution? How is the data that is integrated being used? Those are the big issues in the usage of technology.  There is a strong belief among some that it is a magic bullet, very precise and accurate. Such thinking is a problem because the more social the data becomes, the less objective it tends to become.

Similarly, if the data is not valid, no matter how sophisticated the algorithm is, a coherent analysis cannot be made. There are also problems with someone taking the data out of the context and then analyzing it. The divide between Global South and North makes it riskier because many tech people are from the Global North or from emerging economies like India and China. Development projects around the world are implemented in collaboration with tech companies, who have their own particular interests such as getting data about citizens from developing countries. This gets partially subsidized by donor money under the facade of humanitarian aid.

Manasi: Why was the issue of land grabbing taken up?

Oane: Land grabbing is linked with local food security, dispossession of land, biofuels, energy and environmental problems. Around 2007, land grabbing caught attention globally, due to big deals being made in Madagascar and Ethiopia. But even before that, in Eastern Europe, a lot of land abandoned after the fall of the Berlin wall, was purchased by Western investors. Two advantages for investors who purchased land in countries like Romania have been 1. that the land was bought at a very low cost, meanwhile 2. geographic proximity to Europe means that the produce grown on the land can be sold easily in rich markets. Agriculture subsidies make it all the more profitable, as the amount of subsidy is linked to the size of the land. As the size of land owned increases, the amount of subsidy given also increases in relation to it.

In parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, there is also displacement of people and dispossession of land. The projects in these areas target western markets. As a result, food security in the local area is affected. Similarly, in industrial agriculture the use of pesticides de-grade the environment. Due to the domination of western investors in the land market, buying land becomes expensive for young and local farmers. Countries like Russia and Ukraine often become targets of land grabbing as their land is immensely fertile and institutions are weak. In fact, local authorities are themselves often involved in land grabbing practices.

Manasi: What is the next step after this hackathon?

Oane: We had several ‘problem recognition workshops’ with one hackathon team from Leiden University and this summer we presented the process so far at the EuroDIG conference at the World Forum in The Hague. I have been attending various hackathons this year focusing on agriculture and development related themes. Designing data driven solutions for developmental problems mean different complexities and limitations compared to regular hackathons. I would be interested in seeing what kind of additional information the tech solution can generate once a more sophisticated version of the tool is available.

[1] https://impactcity.nl/monkey-code-wins-hackathon-for-good-with-solution-to-prevent-land-grabbing/

Image credit: Rainforest Action Network on Flickr


About the authors:

Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]Dr. Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international research project on the socio-economic effects of – and responses to – big data and automatization in agriculture.Manasi


Manasi Nikam is a student of MA in Social Policy for Development at ISS. She has co-authored ‘Children of India’ a chapter on the status of well-being of children, for Public Affairs Index 2018.


To fight or to embrace? Divergent responses to the expansion of Southern China’s industrial tree plantation sector by Yunan Xu

The industrial tree plantation sector has been expanding rapidly and massively in Southern China, affecting the livelihoods of the local population residing in the region. But is change resisted or embraced? A recent study on the political economy of Southern China’s industrial tree plantation sector shows that differentiated positions of villagers in their communities lead to distinct political responses to the expansion of the sector.

In the past two decades, the industrial tree plantation (ITP) sector has been expanding rapidly and massively in Southern China, and especially in Guangxi Province. ITPs refer to monocultures of fast-growing tree crops (such as eucalyptus, pine and acacia) mainly used for inedible industrial raw materials. The rise of the ITP sector, involving both foreign and domestic actors, has led to extensive changes in land use and land control, as well as in labour conditions and livelihoods of the villagers in this region. These changes and the resulting encroachment by the ITP sector have led to diverse political reactions by affected villagers residing in this region.

A recent study analysed the dynamics of the ITP boom in Southern China. The main finding of the study is that, contrary to what has been observed in many other places around the world where a crop boom has taken place, the local population in Guangxi Province did not necessarily lose and thus did not always resist the expansion. It shows a more complicated trajectory of the livelihood change and political reaction from below in the course of the crop boom, which is beyond “resistance against expulsion”.

Beyond expulsion

In this case of Guangxi Province, interviewed villagers’ livelihoods were not fully threatened even when some of their collectively owned forest land was appropriated due to their diverse livelihood sources and their ability to retain of their farmland owing to certain institutional settings in China (e.g. the household responsibility system). As a result, when part of their land was leased out, they remained capable of maintaining their subsistence. Hence, when studying the local population’s livelihood change during the massive changes of land use and land control, examining what and how much is left to the villagers is just as important as analysing what and how much has been taken from them.

Moreover, affected villagers are not a homogeneous group, but have varying interests and resource endowments, including land control, labour conditions, financial resources and social relations, and were thus affected differentially during the crop boom. Those villagers who controlled little (or even no) means of production and had little (or even no) access to alternative livelihoods became more vulnerable, whereas those with privileged access to livelihood resources were able to benefit from the sector.

In a few cases, some villagers gained control over the land from local or nearby village collectives and became owners of ITPs. Over the course of these practices, grabbers were not outsiders, but local villagers themselves. They were then able to accumulate land and the associated benefits at the expense of their fellow villagers, rather than simply being victims or resisters in a land deal. Such relatively small-scale land grabbing dominated by local villagers is called intimate land grabbing.

These are critical reminders to go beyond the dichotomies of “small vs. large”, “outsider vs. local actors” and “victims vs. grabbers”, and to focus, instead, on the dynamics of social relationships around land and production processes. 

Beyond resistance

Because of their distinct positions and diverse degrees of dispossession (or no dispossession), villagers had varying perspectives and diverse political responses towards the expansion of the sector. When villagers were able to get actively incorporated into the crop boom, benefiting from the crop boom, they tended to embrace these changes. When the villagers were passively excluded and had lost out, they were more likely to resist. Thus, the villagers’ concerns were mainly centred on their subsistence and economic gains/losses, which are closely associated with the terms of the villagers’ inclusion/exclusion and their access to the alternative livelihood opportunities. Hence, to understand the trajectory of political reactions, the villagers’ differentiated interests and wins and losses should be the key focus of future analyses.

About the author:

Yunan XuYunan Xu is a recent PhD graduate of Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. She has published several  journal articles, reports and conference papers. Her research interests include: land politics and policies, rural livelihood, rural politics, agrarian transformation, crop booms, flex crops and food politics, with the geographic areas both in China and beyond (Southeast Asia and Latin America).



Symbiosis in Russia’s and Ukraine’s agricutural sectors by Natalia Mamonova

One of the main characteristics of agriculture in the post-socialist countries is its dualistic structure—large- and small-scale farms coexist in countries such as Russia or Ukraine. ISS alumna Natalia Mamonova in this interview explains the relationship between these two forms of farming, examining whether they cooperate or compete against each other.

Why is the structure of agricultural production in most post-socialist countries dualistic, where large- and small-scale food producers coexist

The contemporary bimodal agricultural structure is rooted in the Soviet past, particularly in the failure of collective agriculture to provide enough food for everyone. In order to deal with food shortages and the peasant unrest after the cruel collectivization campaign of the 1930s, the Soviet government allowed rural dwellers to cultivate their household plots for personal consumption. Since then, the so-called ‘personal subsidiary farming’ has been playing an important role in the Soviet and, later, post-Soviet agriculture. Just prior to the USSR’s collapse in 1990, rural households contributed to 27% of the gross agricultural product, while kolkhozes and sovkhozes (collective and state farms) produced the rest.

Today, this bifurcation has become even stronger. For example, the share of personal subsidiary farming in Russia and Ukraine is about 40% of the total output, while large-farm enterprises contribute to nearly 50%. There are many explanations for why the bimodal agricultural structure was preserved and even reinforced in these countries. The main reason is the failure of the post-socialist land reform to create commercially oriented private family farms. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the land of kolkhozes and sovkhozes was distributed among rural dwellers by means of land share certificates. However, rural dwellers were unable to use them. The distributed land was concentrated in the hands of local rural elites, and later, in the early 2000s, domestic and foreign land investors accumulated it.

How do you explain this peaceful coexistence from the economic and governance perspectives?

The rural households are not completely independent food producers. Their phenomenal productivity is partly a result of their symbiosis with large farms. In the Soviet time, kolkhozes and sovkhozes used to help rural dwellers with various farm inputs and outputs (such as seeds, fertilisers, machinery, etc.). Moreover, rural dwellers could take some ‘for free’ without any permission. The contemporary large agribusiness often continues practicing such productive symbiosis under their corporate social responsibility programs. In general, lots of former Soviet structures and networks remain vital in the contemporary post-Soviet countryside, which largely influenced the societal attitudes towards large-scale agricultural development.

Another reason for the peaceful coexistence of large-scale industrial agriculture and smallholder farming in the post-Soviet countryside is a division in agricultural markets. Large-scale agribusinesses are specialised in monocrop export-oriented agriculture (predominantly grain) and have more recently started to invest in industrial style meat (poultry and pork) production. In contrast, rural households engage in labour-intensive and time-consuming production of potatoes, vegetables, milk, and meat for family consumption and sale in local markets. Until these two forms of farming do not compete with each other for land and markets, they are able to coexist side by side.

What about the attitudes of small landholders toward large-scale investors?

Some critical researchers and journalists call the post-Soviet land accumulation process an instance of land grabbing. Indeed, the land redistribution was often accompanied by deprivation of land rights of local population and various frauds. However, I would not necessarily use the term ‘land grabbing’ because of the lack of resistance to land deals among the rural population. I conducted a lot of interviews with Russian and Ukrainian villagers—the majority of them do not oppose large-scale land accumulations. Contrarily, they often welcome land investors in their villages. Why? The answer is in the bimodal agricultural structure.

Land grabbing remains one of the key focus areas at the ISS, with many researchers in the Political Ecology research group devoting their attention to this area of research. Natalia’s ISS PhD dissertation focused on land grabbing and agrarian change in Russia and the Ukraine. Her dissertation can be viewed at https://repub.eur.nl/pub/94152.

View the original article here.

Image Credit: www.volganet.ru

About the author:

csm_natalia-mamonova1_855f13fd5cNatalia Mamonova is a Research Fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) and Affiliated researcher at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES) of Uppsala University, Sweden. She received her PhD degree from ISS in 2016. Since then, she was a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, the New Europe College in Bucharest, and the University of Helsinki.