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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.

After the description of the Paraguayan Chaco we learn that since the 1990s loss of thorn forest has jumped from zero to 2000 acres per day. Loop holes in land law allow trucks through. Pearce saw some of the consequences as he flew with non-governmental organisations mapping biodiversity, and with a London-based environmental group, buying land in defence of the Paraguayan Chaco. I observed similar cataloguing when, based in Washington DC for New Scientist, I traveled to Kansas with scientists catalogueing prairie. That exercise was ground-truthing to verify and interpret principles for remote-sensing satellites.

What the environmentalists record in Paraguay could always be cross checked with the CIA World Fact Book (https://www. cia. gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/), which reports that in 2005 Paraguayan land use comprised 7. 47 per cent arable, 0. 24 per cent permanent crops and 92. 29 per cent other. Still, on the day Pearce flew into Mariscal Estigarribia, two thirds along the trans-Chaco highway from Asuncíon to Bolivia, he did not see any trace of the US military garrison, which, in this chapter, he tells us was rumoured to be there. Pearce as myth buster.

In this chapter we also meet the President of the Union of the Native Ayoreo of Paraguay. These people, says their president, cannot locate their territories on a map, nor show land title, but they can point to proof of their presence, and their living on and working of the land, such as holes carved in trees from which they harvested honey. "These are our property documents." Ayoreo now live in roadside camps among Mennonites who have settled in Paraguay. Mosquitoes have a new menu: humans and cattle, rather than shrub. Did the indigenous people hope the Mennonites would help them combat what they most likely knew were the hazards of living in close contact with nature? Or were the Ayoreo offering the best of their knowledge, because the indigenous people did live in the shrub, and mosquitoes are not a new species.

Probably a cultural anthropologist could look at the photographs Pearce saw of the Mennonites meeting the indigenous people, and provide rich insights. Throughout this book I found myself asking just what were the different cultural groups really saying to one another by dress and demeanour. It is a mark of the quality of the detailed reporting that the book leaves me looking for links, and with such questions to ponder. The book content allows my inherent bias to surface of assuming intelligence to be evenly distributed among peoples.

Another helpful brief aside here is that historian, Diana Wylie, has written an excellent chapter, "Disease, diet and gender", in Volume V, Historiography, in the Oxford History of the British Empire (1999). Her review of science and medical mid-twentieth century historiography is a good complement to Pearce's book.

Land Grabbers is a journalists' and geographers' tour de force, written in a wholly accessible way. I could nit pick about various things, but given the author's intent, and the manifest context, I think any expert reader would question detail before taking umbrage or specific action. There are probably rich pickings here for scientists and politicians internationally, able to filter observation and on-the-spot reporting through their own expertise.


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