Pakistan: Will Land Leases Worsen Hunger at Home?

BAHAWALPUR, 22 September 2009 (IRIN) — Fears have been raised of a possible increase in food insecurity in Pakistan if a deal to lease out 202,342.8 hectares of farmland to Saudi Arabia goes ahead.

Talks are reportedly under way between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to finalize an agreement.  The land, to be acquired in all four provinces of Pakistan, would be used to grow food to help Saudi Arabia meet its own food needs.

However, there is concern about the impact of such an agreement on Pakistan.

“Leasing land to foreign companies or the Saudis will not benefit Pakistan in any way.  It will aggravate the worsening agricultural crisis we face,” Farooq Tariq, secretary of the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, an alliance of 22 organizations representing peasants, told IRIN.

“It will deprive the peasantry of the right to land and it will bring no progress to agriculture.  Food sovereignty will be compromised as the outsiders will come to Pakistan for just one purpose: the loot and plunder of natural resources,” Tariq said.

The fact that hunger is rampant in Pakistan adds to such concerns about land leasing.  The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, which releases an annual Global Hunger Index each year, rates the level of hunger in Pakistan as “alarming.”

Other organizations have reported similar results.  The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in its first regional report on child mortality released last year, said India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan together account for half the world’s underweight children.

Daily Struggle

For many Pakistani families, meeting food needs is a daily struggle.  In their hut on an agricultural estate belonging to a landowner near the town of Bahawalpur in the southern Punjab, Hakeem-ud-din, his wife, and four children share out three ‘rotis’ (flattened bread) for their evening meal.  They will consume the bread with a small helping of chili paste and lentils.  “We almost never have enough to eat.  My children often cry because they are hungry,” Hakeem told IRIN.

Hakeem tills land on the estate, in exchange for which he collects a small wage and is handed over some produce — usually wheat flour.  “My family has no choice but to continue like this.  We have no alternatives,” said Hakeem.  “My father was forced to sell the few acres we still owned about a decade ago to pay for heart surgery for my mother.”

I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said: “In a country where land hunger is acute and hundreds of thousands of skilled cultivators have no land or are without subsistence-level holdings, the giving away of land to foreign parties or non-farming institutions — or retired civil and military employees for that matter — should be considered a criminal denial of the people’s rights and their interests.”

However, the government is moving ahead with the deal.

“Over the last few weeks, the Saudi government has been in talks with us to lease 500,000 acres of farmland, and we are currently in the process of locating which land we could give them,” Tauqir Ahmad Faiq, regional secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, told the media.

He said the leased land would be used by Saudi Arabia to grow “fruit, vegetables and crops.”

High Food Prices

Meanwhile, the rising prices of food items in Pakistan put many items beyond the reach of people such as Muhammad Aziz, a car mechanic who earns about US$62 a month.  “There are more and more things I and my family can no longer dream of enjoying, like fruit or good quality meat,” he said.

According to government figures, consumer price inflation was 11.2 percent during July 2009 as against 24.3 percent in July 2008 and 13.1 percent in June 2009.  Despite this downward trend, Aziz said: “Prices rose so sharply in 2008 — while wages did not — that the reduction now from levels last year really doesn’t mean very much.  Things are still far more expensive than they were in 2007.  The money we earn is almost the same.”

The acquisition of farmland in poor countries by richer nations, to meet their own food needs, is part of a global trend that has been discussed at various international forums, including the G8 meeting in July this year.

The accelerated process of land sales and leases has created alarm.  Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, spoke last year of the risk of a “neo-colonial” agricultural system emerging.

The Pakistan government has said it also plans to lease land to countries other than Saudi Arabia.

This article was first published by IRIN.