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In his book Land Grabbing published in Italy by minimum fax, young journalist Stefano Liberti takes us from the plushy rooms of FAO to the Ethiopian plateau, from the Chicago stock exchange to Brazil’s forests, in his comprehensive overview of this dramatic phenomenon.
In recent months Liberti co-directed the documentary Closed Sea with Andrea Segre that presents the story of some of the hundreds of refugees that were stopped at sea from entering Italy in 2009-2010 by Italian soldiers and forcibly returned to Libya.

As you explain in your book Land Grabbing, goods and capital travel with little hindrance, even when they trample on the rights of local populations. On the other hand, the movement of human beings is viewed as ‘criminal’ behavior as you show in Closed Sea. What do you think of this contradiction?
We are indeed witnessing an incredible paradox. Europe has an ambiguous stance: from an economic point of view it maintains an open approach, but when it comes to immigration, it adopts measures against it that are very expensive… and not very effective! With a massive deployment of forces, about a thousand people were stopped while trying to reach Italy by boat from Africa since 2009. They come from different countries: some were fleeing from war zones and were not given the chance to apply for asylum.

Let’s talk about land grabbing. Can we still define this phenomenon as the “colonialism of the 21st century”? In your book you also emphasize the responsibility of local governments.
As an after-effect of the end of colonialism, former colonial powers kept control of trade. As in the past, the current phenomenon of land grabbing perpetuates the mechanism of dispossession. But today local governments are responsible for it: they accept unfair contracts to strengthen their position or nurture connivances.

What role do you think international institutions and society can play to stop the phenomenon?
The most relevant international institutions, such as the FAO and the World Bank, welcomed the first acquisitions of land abroad. They saw them as opportunities for investments in the agricultural sector which – let’s not forget it – urgently needs them. Now they are trying to put a halt to the process and to redefine their stance by implementing codes of conduct which, however, are certainly not incisive.
The problem stems from the fact that the same institutions promote an incompatible cultural model. On the one hand, they are proponents of rural environments based on small-scale farming; on the relationship with the land and on farmers’ knowledge which has been handed down for centuries. On the other hand, there is the industrial model that considers land as a commodity and is based on the concentration of lands and monocultures that rely on chemical inputs.
For society, it is difficult to do something in this context. There are glimmers of hope, like the Fanaye episode, in Senegal, where the mobilization of citizens stopped a project before it was even started. But these are small hotbeds of resistance; in many countries repression triggers so much fear that any kind of reaction is paralyzed. Also, the people who are directly affected are rural populations, who are often less organized.

And what can individuals in western countries do? Should they be more careful with their investments?
Citizens can try and demand more transparency from those who manage their investments. It is an extremely complex field. It takes clear rules and independent research to make more informed and responsible investment choices. The situation in northern Europe, for instance, is critical as many pension funds have been found to be involved in investments in fertile land.

Can we say no to land grabbing by choosing local products as our daily food?
Yes, this is very important. Individual citizens can adopt more responsible consumption habits, choose fresh and seasonal products from short production chains. However, we need to make a distinction between individual ethics and collective actions. I believe we need to go a step further to ensure real global change. Politics must take on its regulatory role, with aids and disincentives. I don’t want to blame it all on the supermarket fruit sections; I think it takes immediate and incisive public measures to achieve real change.

Slow Food is promoting a global campaign against land grabbing. Visit our website to find out more:

For more information on Stefano Liberti’s work:
Land Grabbing, (minimum fax, 2011)
Closed Sea (2012)

Watch the trailer of the documentary Closed Sea (with English subtitles)

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