Science, People & Politics: eCOVER | This issue

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Science, People & Politics, issue 4 (Oct.-Dec.), VIII (2012).

Buyer beware: biodiversity, food, pensions, hedge funds and trade.
By Helen Gavaghan

The Land Grabbers, The new fight over who owns the Earth.
by Fred Pearce
Hardback. Beacon Press. Boston. Paperback to be published March 2013.

Throughout The Land Grabbers, Pearce deals with what is happening on the land surface. The cerrado of Matto Grosso and western Bahia, he tells us, is now de-acidified, fertilized and subject to crop rotation. In the process much loss of biodiversity has occurred. On the other hand, instead of gun battles, the cerrado contributes to Brazilian export figures, and generates import needs; that is, it creates export opportunities for other countries. I looked up the detail on the World Trade Organization (WTO) website, and Brazilian exports in 2011 divide roughly one third from agriculture, one third from manufacture, and one third from fuels and mining products. Brazil acceded to the WTO on 1st January, 1995.

World trade is not the essence of this book, though. As a geographer and environmental journalist, the survey points Pearce identifies, through which lines of contour could be drawn, are groups dispossessed by land development, and locations of losses in biodiversity. In each national case one can see that the underlying political motivation could well be different from the seemingly obvious. Repeatedly one sees a significant problem is weakness in legal structures and chains of ownership.

Paragraph by paragraph I was left thinking Pearce is looking for a smoking gun. Who shot whom, with what? What and when was the crime or civil wrong? In chapter after chapter the account implicitly blames capitalism. I think that is only part of the story. First, I do not think capitalism, despite its faults, is synonymous with monolithic, greedy political malpractice, and it is a system common to political philosophies from socialism to Christian democracy, else there would be no capital gains taxes.

Despite awareness and criticism of international economics and national politics in action, and Pearce's awareness of the victims, both people and biodiversity, "The Land Grabbers" remains a geography tract, and takes its title seriously. Big business, hedge funds, pension funds, poor employment practice, dubious approaches to title deeds and debt bondage litter the pages. Taken down to the local level some stories are heart breaking. Tolstoy would be proud of Pearce's loyalty to narrative drive.

As an aside I would like to point out that in January 2008 the Royal Society of London drew attention to the need to be aware of the impact that development of crops for biofuel has on the locations where the crops are grown. The caution could be applied more widely. (See: Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges. Published by The Royal Society, London. January 14, 2008. )

Pearce maintains journalistic integrity. He reports what he sees, knowing, as all journalists do, that there is probably more to the story than is obvious at face value. I wonder, too, if Pearce is being deliberately intellectually provocative, working his journalistic integrity and professional feel for geography in a way inviting other investigative disciplines and politicians to strut their stuff in some kind of useful and helpful way. Am I right? No idea.

Nor does my interpretation matter. I am not the author.


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