Back to search

Visualising Land-grabbing

Visualising Land-grabbing - The number of documented international land investments (aka land-grabbing) has been on the rise since 2000. Investors, whether private or governmental, are particularly interested in large-scale tracts of land located in the less-developed countries of the Global South.

Inevitably, such investments have an economic, social, and environmental impact in the countries concerned. demonstrates the link between several development indicators and the prevalence of large-scale land investments. is a project by Cecil v. Treu and Cornelius Hirsch. The project was supported financially by the Centre for Rural Development (SLE) as well as the Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBS) and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies Potsdam (IASS).

  • Land and water are scarce resources and indispensible for the cultivation of agricultural products. Over the past few decades, the global per capita availability of land and water resources has decreased remarkably. The main reasons behind this ongoing shortage are the world’s growing population and increasing demand for food. 
  • Arable land and renewable water resources are the most vital input factors for agriculture as they are essential for the production of food crops, livestock and non-food agricultural products. There are several economic aspects, such as individual disposable income, that increase the demand for these products. How does income influence our demand for land and agricultural products?
  • Resource scarcity: Since each and every one of us consumes agricultural goods, we all have a certain demand for land. Agricultural products may serve as food, feed, fibre or fuel (also referred to as the 4 Fs). Given that rising incomes lead to increased consumption of these agricultural products, our individual demand for land is also growing.
  • Demand for land: The amount of land required for each of the 4 Fs varies at different income levels. For individuals with little income, the land is used mainly to produce food, whereas individuals with higher incomes require more land for the production of feed and fuel. Therefore, every individual contributes to the growing demand for land to varying degrees. However, the demand for land also varies greatly from one country to the next. Do countries with higher income levels have a greater demand for land and resources?
  • Consumption: Our demand for land and other resources can also be expressed as our ecological footprint. It indicates the total area needed to satisfy our consumption. On a global average, our footprint is larger than our biocapacity. In other words: our resource consumption exceeds the capacity of such resources to regenerate. These indicators vary greatly for different countries – some have excessively large footprints, others have biocapacity reserves. There is a strong link between a country’s income and its footprint. 
  • Since our global footprint exceeds our planet’s biocapacity, we deplete resources faster than they are able to regenerate. This circumstance leads to an increasing demand for land. Many countries, especially those with high biocapacity deficits, invest in foreign land to satisfy their growing need for agricultural produce. Do they invest in regions with biocapacity reserves?
  • Land rush: Arable land and land in general have become a tempting investment target over the past two decades, and observers are even talking about a land rush. Rising, fluctuating food prices on international markets have intensified this rush for foreign land even further. Since the year 2000, a considerable number of foreign land investments have been documented. In most cases, foreign land investments are based on long-term lease rights with terms ranging from 60 to 99 years. They mainly focus on agriculture and forestry. A majority of these investments, in turn, are made for the purpose of producing food crops while an astonishingly large percentage is aimed at producing biofuels. Apart form private investors, there are also many governments behind the investment operations.
  • Food price trends have prompted numerous investors to acquire land around the globe in recent years. There are many players involved in the emerging business of foreign land investments, some acting as investors and others providing the land for investment. Yet where do these investors come from and where are their investments located?

  • Map of investments: Foreign land investment is an international phenomenon that involves every single region in the world, either as a provider of land or as an investor in it. Some regions seem to be hotspots for land investments. The red lines show international investment activities, linking investors’ region of origin with the target regions of their investments. So far 137 countries have engaged in foreign land investments, whether as investors or providers of land for investments. A closer look at country-specific information reveals where the largest investors come from and the regions where their investments are located.

  • Most investor countries have made investments in several regions around the globe. Some regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa or South-East Asia have provided large tracts of land for foreign investments. Why are these regions particularly attractive for investors to lease or purchase large areas of land? 

  • Some regions and countries are particularly active in foreign land investments. Apart from the increasing demand for land, there are several different explanations and reasons behind their involvement. Which are the largest investor and provider countries and what is their motivation? 

  • Comparison: Some countries are particularly active in terms of foreign land investments. Each of the top 10 investor and provider countries have either bought, leased, or provided over a million hectares of land. A comparison based on economic and ecological factors highlights how dissimilar investor and provider countries are.

The limited availability of crucial agricultural input factors, such as arable land and renewable water resources, results in increasing competition in certain regions of the world. This situation is reinforced by recent trends for agricultural products (food, feed, fibre and fuel). Therefore foreign land investments are becoming a suitable strategy for overcoming bottlenecks and stabilising supply.

The number of foreign land investment transactions concluded and reported reflects this development. Hence, the annual investment volume in foreign land correlates with the FAO Food Price Index. Increasing, fluctuating food prices create even more incentives for net food importing countries to engage in land investments. Countries characterised by biocapacity deficiencies are likely to partially outsource their agricultural production into areas with sufficient land and water resources. Furthermore, political interventions such as biofuel mandates have enhanced the profitability of such investments. Investors are geographically concentrated and can mainly be found in regions with biocapacity deficiencies, such as North America, Western Europe or the Middle East. Provider countries have an equally characteristic profile. These countries typically have rich agricultural resources, a surplus of biocapacity, a lack of governmental stability, and a lower level of economic development. Noticeable hotspot regions are Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia and Latin America.