The UN-declared International Year of the Family Farm is a good time to rethink global land tenure systems, a renowned Canadian public policy analyst says.
Nettie Wiebe, farm leader and professor of church and society at St. Andrews College in Saskatoon told a Winnipeg audience recently there are long-term negative consequences of allowing unfettered access to land ownership by outside investors.
“We’re seeing a new wave of colonialism that’s not nation driven, but corporate driven and it’s having the same effect of displacing people,” said Wiebe who spoke as a guest lecturer for the Menno Siemens College ‘How We Grow, Share and Eat’ Esau Lecture Series.
Wiebe described the impact on the ground as investors have gobbled up land for sale in her own municipality in Saskatchewan.
In less than five years, a full third of all farmland in that one municipality alone has changed hands, she said. But it hasn’t been divvied up among local farmers or sold to young farmers wanting to get started. Over 100 quarters of it are now owned by just two outside investors, she said.
“If you look at a map of my municipality you will see in the last three to four years they have bought 34 per cent of the municipality,” she said.
That’s entirely changing the nature of their rural community, she said, adding that you need not look at a map to see the end results. Local farmers have been outbid for the land. “No young farmer can even begin to think of purchasing it,” she said.
Residents of the municipality have also been astonished to discover locked gates along newly fenced quarter sections and mile after mile of shelterbelts bulldozed.
“These are just the outside signs of what is actually going on when the relationship to land is no longer one of farmer to land but of investor to land,” she said.
Wiebe said it’s not so long ago that she, and others in the National Farmers Union, thought the need for agrarian reform to prevent displacement of smaller farmers was a pressing issue elsewhere in the world more so than here at home.
“I remember us saying how access to land isn’t really our problem because in our context, we buy and sell land and it’s mostly family farmers getting bigger,” she said. “Well, things have changed.”
From the Country Guide website: Too young to grow
Wiebe stressed that if public policy continues to give unrestricted access to land by outside investors whose primary value of land is the dollar to be earned from it, not only will rural communities and their social relationships disappear, but so will society’s fundamental relationship to the land itself. It will no longer be valued as a living system that’s part of an ecosystem that we depend on, she said.
“If we see the land only as a productive opportunity, or as in this case, as an investment opportunity, then we are shortchanging the land. I think that is such a thin view of land and such a disconnected view,” she said. “Its usefulness will become diverted entirely to our purposes as we think of it as, what kind of return can we get from it?… or, how quickly can we flip it and make a dollar on it?”
The entire lecture can be viewed online .