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China, UK, and US at centre of global ”land grabbing” trade

China, UK, and US at centre of global ”land grabbing” trade

Nearly two out of three countries in the world now participate in a new kind of “virtual land trade”, where not only the goods produced but land ownership itself is traded internationally, according to a study from Lund University in Sweden.


WATCH: Two thirds of world’s countries now part of global land trade

This phenomenon of large-scale global land acquisitions is receiving increasing international attention because of its potential to contribute to development and raise yields in developing countries, but amidst concerns about local land rights and livelihoods.

”This work demonstrates that we live in ‘a global village’ as far as land is concerned. Decisions made on one part of the planet can affect the land productivity, biodiversity, and the well-being of people on another”, says Jonathan Seaquist, Associate Professor of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science at Lund University.

The study found that the land trading network is dominated by a few key players with many trading partners - led by China, which imports land ownership from 33 countries, closely followed by the UK and the US.

Geographically, countries in the global North primarily act as land importers, while the global South acts primarily as land exporters. There are four main areas that import land: North America, Western Europe, the Middle East, and developing economies in Asia. Southeast Asia is also an exporter of land, along with South America, Eastern Europe, and especially Africa.

Many of the areas exporting land currently have low agricultural productivity, and therefore have potential to boost yields with technological improvements and investment. However, the researchers identified several vulnerabilities within the land trade network.

One is that the most connected countries tend to trade with the most peripheral countries in the network. These exporting countries could therefore become dependent on single foreign investors, and be affected by changes in the global market or policy. If the investors decide to terminate their use of the land, they potentially leave unsupported infrastructure, jobs and lost land rights behind.

The heaviest exporters are also at risk, since the establishment of large, mechanised farming schemes could lead to land cover change, a reduction in biodiversity and social problems in the affected communities.

The researchers say more research is needed when it comes to the relatively new phenomenon of land acquisitions, in order to fully understand potential risks within the network. Emma Johansson, a PhD student at Lund University and co-author of the study, has done field work in Tanzania, and stresses the need for qualitative studies.

”This study is highly quantitative, but you also need a bottom-up approach to examine what’s actually happening on the ground. Going forward, I want to look at the real impact of these investments on a local level”, Emma concludes.


About the study:
The research was led by Jonathan Seaquist, Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, with collaborators Emma Li Johansson, a PhD student in LUCID, and Kimberly Nicholas, an Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS).

The researchers used the tools of network science to analyse the most comprehensive data on land acquisition available, by combining information from two sources, the Land Matrix and GRAIN, to analyse nearly 1400 land trade deals. Network science has been used in previous studies in fields as diverse as brain function, international finance, and human migration to explore the patterns of connection between elements in a complex system. This approach has recently been adopted as a way to quantify the increasingly globalised nature of trade in natural resources such as water used for agricultural production.

Publication: Architecture of the global land acquisition system: applying the tools of network science to identify key vulnerabilities


Jonathan Seaquist
jonathan [dot] seaquist [at] nateko [dot] lu [dot] se (jonathan[dot]seaquist[at]nateko[dot]lu[dot]se)
+46 46 222 3974

Emma Li Johansson
emma [dot] johansson [at] nateko [dot] lu [dot] se (emma[dot]johansson[at]nateko[dot]lu[dot]se)