Land and Resource Grabs: The Loss of Local Community Control
Land and resource grabs have far-reaching ecological, legal, and human rights consequences. Land and resource grabs happen worldwide, negatively affecting communities everywhere through the loss of local control. These are deliberate, often corporate-led, attempts to control land, water, profits, and other resources from people who live and work there. Farmland grabs are focused on maximizing profits - not increasing agricultural production or sustainably managing natural resources.
Land grabbing has occurred for hundreds of years, especially through the displacement and land theft from indigenous communities during colonization. These grabs have increased since the 2008 financial crisis, as corporate and private investors take land as a financial asset to profit from increasing resource scarcity. Farmland is an especially popular (and profitable) investment - farmland grabs make it even more difficult for family-scale farmers to thrive, particularly beginning farmers and farmers of color. With more than 40 percent of all US farmland expected to transfer hands in the next few decades, keeping land within local agricultural control, and not in the hands of corporations, is crucial.
With domestic and international allies, NFFC helped to launch the Stop Land Grabs campaign - a coalition of nonprofit organizations, unions, and individuals that are placing pressure on institutions and investment funds to cease land and resource grabs.
We worked with the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School to create four brand new reports detailing historical and current land grabs trends, and examining agricultural land policy in the US.
We are excited to offer these reports as a valuable resource - scroll over each box to download the reports.
Land and Resource Grabs: An American Tradition
The history of the United States since Europeans first arrived is based on stolen land, labor, and other resources. White European colonists confiscated the land that is now called the United States from its original Indigenous inhabitants through violence and broken treaties. These colonizers used their privilege, status, and wealth to build an economic system on the backs of enslaved peoples that was justified through a white supremacist social structure. After slavery was abolished, agricultural workers, most of whom were Black or people of color, were exploited in different ways, including sharecropping, exclusion from labor laws, restrictive immigration policies, and unpaid prison labor.
With the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1866 Southern Homestead Act, the US government offered plots of “unsettled” Midwestern and Great Plains land to citizens to farm. Ten percent of all US land was claimed under these acts. Investors and existing landowners quickly claimed the parcels before poorer farmers could and resold the land for profit.
Black farmers were routinely excluded from Homestead Act grants under discriminatory practices. More than 1 million white families claimed land under these Homestead Acts, compared to (at most) 5,500 Black families. In 1865, Union general William Sherman issued “Field Order No. 15”, which redistributed 400,000 acres of uncultivated land to formerly enslaved people. President Andrew Johnson overturned the order less than a year later, returning most of the land to its white Confederate owners, and systematically excluding people of color from land ownership.
Nonetheless, Black farmers were committed to land ownership in the years following the abolition of slavery, and by 1910 they accounted for 20 percent of all farmers. In the last century, Black land ownership has plummeted by 98 percent as systemic racism perpetuates land grabs. Many Southern Black farmers migrated or fled North due to threatened or actual violence, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) itself has been responsible for more than a century of discrimination and land theft.
Much of the accumulated wealth in the US is built on this system of exploitation and theft of land, labor, and other resources by government and corporate entities. These land and resource grabs disproportionately impact Indigenous, Black, Latin American, and Asian peoples and other people of color, while also preying on poor rural white communities.
Land and resource grabs are the foundation of the United States. Global capitalism and white supremacy perpetuated its wealth and continue to fuel its economy today.
Land and Resource Grabs Today
Land Speculation for Investment
Since the 2008 financial crisis, companies and institutions have increasingly invested in farmland to protect against future market fluctuations. Land is a stable investment overall, and investors are acquiring fertile land with secure water rights in order to profit from future scarcity. Farmland is also under threat of being converted into urban or residential developments. These investors include individuals, corporations, equity funds, pension funds, university endowments, and many others.
These investments are driving up farmland prices, which nearly doubled from 2005 to 2019. High land costs make land inaccessible for new and beginning farmers just as an aging farmer population is retiring and the US needs many more farmers to improve regional food security and care for the land.
Black landowners, especially in the South, still regularly face threats to their ownership. A complicated system of ownership called heirs’ property leaves many Black landowners especially vulnerable to investors.
The system of heirs’ property arose from landowners, primarily Black, not having access to the legal system due to discrimination, lack of funds, or well-founded distrust. As a result, property has been transferred from generation to generation without formal wills or estate plans, leading to increasingly insecure land tenure. For example, if a landowner with four children dies without a formal will, the land passes “undivided” to all four, meaning that each child has a right to use and occupy the whole property, not just a quarter of it. As the number of heirs increases with each generation, tens or even hundreds of descendants can lay undivided claim to the land. Undivided claim means that in many states, just one of these owners can lay claim to the whole property – including asking a court to sell the entire property at public auction without the consent of the remaining owners. In this case, heirs’ property owners lose not only their family legacy, but receive only a fraction of the property’s true market value.
Heirs’ property laws and subsequent auctions have been used by investors to take significant land holdings from Black families at bargain prices. NFFC works closely with members including the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and Land Loss Prevention Project to clarify and strengthen federal and state laws to protect heirs’ property landowners.
Corporate Profit Over Public Good
Business interests have long lobbied the government to increase their own power and profits. Today, we see a wide variety of land use projects billed as "public goods" that, in fact, use public policy and funding to create profits for private corporations, often ignoring or avoiding community input.
Lax federal and state oversight allows developers of large-scale, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, or “factory farms”) to build and expand near environmentally sensitive areas or close to neighboring homes. Policies and regulations in some states have even been written by the meat lobby before being approved by state legislatures. Although this type of livestock production has become prevalent, most farmers would rather remain independent, receive fair prices for their products, and grow their business at a sustainable pace rather than scale up as contract growers to remain financially afloat. Corporations such as Smithfield, JBS Foods, and Tyson's benefit most from CAFO agriculture, with these companies routinely posting significant profits as contract farmers take on mounting debt and workers face significant risk of workplace injury for low wages.
Finally, weak land laws in many countries have allowed multinational corporations based in the Global North to easily purchase land, especially in the Global South, for resource extraction, monocrop commodity farms, and other reasons. There are countless reports from communities affected by land grabs of human rights abuses, widespread displacement, violence, and even assassinations of activists defending their land.
There is a long history of land and resource grabs by energy and other mining companies that continues today. The use of eminent domain, company-owned mineral rights, and tax breaks have long supported the drilling, extraction, and transport of fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal. The discovery of resources like phosphate rock, coal, oil, or natural gas can dramatically increase the value of a parcel of land. Recent hydrofracturing (“fracking”) technology made underground seams of natural gas accessible and created a new energy rush.. Large-scale land acquisition is also happening for solar and wind projects.
The right to access certain finite resources has been formalized by the US government because the natural processes to replenish them occur at very slow rates, if they happen at all. Unfortunately, corporations and other moneyed entities often gain wider access to the detriment of local communities and private individuals.
Water rights may be the best known of these arrangements; in arid regions of the US water rights can determine whether a farmer will be able to raise crops successfully or not. In some rural areas, investors will pay millions of dollars for water rights to pump water out of local communities to make a profit. Farmers are even paid to keep their land fallow, freeing up water for urban and other uses. The increasing scarcity of water leads to conflict between large and small scale farmers, as well as between rural and urban communities.
Fishing rights work similarly in coastal communities. The total catch of certain fish species is regulated to reduce overfishing. Fishermen buy shares of that total, called quota, giving them the right to catch a certain amount. Unfortunately, quota prices often rise quickly out of reach of smaller independent fishing fleets, to the benefit of the largest companies who can afford to purchase more.
Policy Addressing Land and Resource Grabs
The US government has always had its hand on land access and control - historically using this influence to exacerbate racial inequity while marginalizing family-scale farmers. It’s time for the federal government to turn over a new leaf and commit to creating positive change by defending public resources, local control, and equitable access to land.
NFFC is pleased that Congress is finally considering issues regarding land access and dispossession, particularly for Black and other minority farmers. The Justice for Black Farmers Act, introduced in 2021, would establish a land grant program for Black farmers, a farmer training and apprentice program, and much more. NFFC is advocating for the expansion of this proposal to include all socially disadvantaged and economically struggling farmers.
The 2021 American Rescue Plan included debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers (based on race) who hold a qualifying loan with the Farm Service Agency. Unfortunately, this debt relief was threatened by lawsuits in a handful of states, filed by white farmers claiming discrimination in a form of reverse racism. NFFC stood against these lawsuits that pitted farmers against each other and supported efforts by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to defend this promised debt relief, which was repealed by the US Senate in passing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Strengthening land rights for family farmers, and historically marginalized communities in particular, has been a policy priority for decades. Following the leadership of our member groups Land Loss Prevention Project and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, strengthening heirs’ property rights was a central tenet of NFFC’s 2018 Farm Bill platform. Working closely with our allies at Rural Coalition, our collective advocacy advanced important changes in the 2018 Farm Bill for heirs’ property holders, including a loan program to help establish ownership and succession on farmland with multiple owners. Almost 20 states have also passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, clarifying and strengthening the rights of heirs’ property holders.
Securing land access for young and beginning farmers has become an important policy issue, led by groups such as the National Young Farmers Coalition. Accessing quality, affordable farmland is a major barrier for people looking to begin farming, especially for people of color. This issue is especially timely with an aging farmer population and over 370 million acres of farmland expected to change ownership by sale, will, trust beneficiary, or gifts in the next 20 years.
Several states across the US have established legal protections that restrict the ability of corporate and interests based outside the US to invest in farmland or to engage in agriculture, commonly called “corporate farming laws”. These laws differ between states but generally seek to protect the interests of family farmers from looming threats of unfair market competition. NFFC members, such as the Dakota Resource Council, continue to defend these statutes from legal challenges in their state.
Internationally, the United Nations has made some important decisions on land tenure. The UN Committee on Food Security formalized the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure, one of the few international tools to support secure smallholder land tenure; NFFC friends and allies worldwide provided input to shape the guidelines. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants also includes land rights as a key component to help governments hold corporations accountable for land grabs.