Black Soil is the Other Oil

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Ukraine is known as the “breadbasket of Europe.” According to a recent report from the Oakland Institute, it has one-third of all the arable land in the EU (32 million hectares). For 19 years the nation had resisted the arm-twisting, coercions and seductions of global finance to protect its rich agricultural base and keep it in the hands of millions of peasant owner-farmers, sparing them the invasion of industrial scale use of pesticides and fertilizers. Ukraine is the 7th largest wheat producer in the world. This is some of the best land on the planet. Guess who wants it. 

Since COVID effected the Ukraine economy in the same ways it has everywhere else, the nation was cash-strapped. The IMF, the Snidely Whiplash of global predators, offered Ukraine a desperately needed bridge loan. In return, the IMF wanted to open a land market, gaining access to that black soil, over the objections of 80% of the population (who were locked down and could not publicly demonstrate), President Zelensky eventually agreed. And since then (March, 2020), those cash-poor, land-rich peasant farmers have been gradually separated from their most valuable asset because they couldn’t come up with the cash necessary to obtain a license to keep their own land.

In fact, with the IMF fully engaged, private financial backing for the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy companies totaled an estimated $478bn (£380bn) between January 2015 and 30 April this year. The financing came in the form of loans, bonds and share ownership from the likes of BNP Paribas, Barclays, HSBC, Prudential UK, Standard Life Aberdeen, Legal & General. Pension funds were also singled out for criticism in the report, with Norway’s Sovereign Wealth fund listed as one of the largest shareholders in meat and dairy corporations. US participation in the agribusiness sector also comes from some of the largest pension funds such as TIAA, CalPERS, the NY State Teacher’s Fund and other state retirement funds.

TIAA-CREF Brazil properties

Who benefits? Cargill, DuPont, Bayer (which recently bought Monsanto). The land will be used for cultivation (corn and soybeans), grazing (meat and dairy) and mining. In fact, this trend of multinational agribusiness buying up rich farmland across the world has been going on for 15 years for more. Large tracts in Brazil, East Africa, Eastern Europe, Zambia, Myanmar, Poland, Chile, Australia and elsewhere have been snatched up because the return is reliable. If you’re wondering who is buying the land being cleared by fire in the Amazon, look to these companies and their partners in ‘market efficiency’, i.e. crime: private equity funds, retirement funds, endowments and most likely hedge funds. And then look at the fertilizer giants following right along such as Syngenta with its bee-killing neonicotinoids.

The ostensible reason agribusiness has been descending on vulnerable nations to sweep up large tracts for cultivation is to “feed the world” or to “reduce poverty.” But in reality, the former occupants of the land, living there for generations, often cannot produce clear title. The approach to gaining access to the land is to institute ‘reforms’ that create an ‘efficient’ market where there previously was none. So while the new ‘owners’ use deep financial resources to gain control, the previous owners are dispossessed because they can’t ‘buy’ their own property and are left with meager compensation and no transitional training. Another side of the story is that unlocking ‘dead capital’ can help the poor improve their land, gain access to credit and realize greater returns from it. However, this is World Bank, IMF and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation neo-colonial theory based on limited evidence . And while having little or no effect on local poverty, new owners of unused or state-owned land tracts institute cultivation practices known to be damaging to soil, water resources and finite mineral resources. 

Scientists have repeatedly expressed alarm over the environmental impact of large-scale food and dairy production and are calling for a transformation of the global food system. They say the current model is responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use, with huge reductions in meat-eating essential to forestall climate crisis.

Public employees and other American investors checking out the returns from their pension and retirement accounts are, to a degree, looking at the success of these rapacious intrusions into legacy land ownership systems and flawed title systems based on community ownership. These intrusions are designed to take advantage of historically informal systems by pushing formal registries with the intent of separating peasant farmers from their land in the name of ‘productivity.’

Harvard Brazil Properties

Brazil is a slightly different story. The Amazon fires have spread to the largest and most bio-diverse savannah in the world, the Cerrado. Fires have cleared 40,000 sq miles of land for international agribusiness investors including two of the largest private pension funds in the US: the Harvard Endowment (owner of over 1 million acres) and the New York-based TIAA-CREF (owner of over 830,000 acres). These practices are directly fueling land grabs, assassinations of environmental activists, displacement of indigenous populations, environmental destruction and the well-documented destructive practices of monoculture with chemical inputs.

Arable land is a limited resource. Black soil is a limited resource. Keeping that soil from becoming a source of GHGs instead of remaining a carbon sink and keeping it out of the hands of “drill and kill” developers is just as necessary as preventing the fossil fuel industry from exhausting earth’s ‘carbon budget.’

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