Deforestation and land grabbing

© Nacho Doce / Reuters
Deforestation is one of the most common environmental problems associated with agricultural production and industrial agriculture is its driving force. This is largely due to the massive expansion of so-called flex crops such as soybeans and palm oil although other commodities such as cocoa also contribute significantly to global deforestation. Land grabbing is also a grave concern related to the production of agricultural commodities. Over 500 cases have been documented globally between 2006 and 2016.

A 2014 study by US-based environmental organisation Forest Trends found that 49 % of deforestation due to industrial agriculture was illegal, with half of that linked to production for export markets. The same study found that Brazil and Indonesia alone account for 75 % of global illegal deforestation for agricultural purposes. This is largely due to the cultivation of flex crops: soybeans in Brazil and palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Deforestation, however, is not limited to flex crops in Latin America or Asia. In West Africa, primarily in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, vast areas of natural forests have vanished as a result of deforestation to make way for expanding cocoa plantations. In the case of palm oil, rubber, coffee, and cocoa, the narrow climatic zones in which these products can be cultivated leads to a concentration of global production in relatively small areas. As a result, there is little scope for relocation. Increased demand for animal feed and agro fuels leads to more and more land, including protected areas and rainforests, being converted into farmland as this is considerably easier than increasing land productivity. This in turn results in ever more deforestation.

Several reports by US-based NGO Mighty Earth confirm the wide-spread deforestation in Latin America and West Africa involving Swiss-based agricultural traders. 

In Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, the NGO has documented deforestation in cocoa farming involving Cargill. New data released in April 2019 by Global Forest Watch, an online platform providing data and tools for monitoring forests, revealed that rates of tropical primary forest loss increased dramatically in 2018 in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire due primarily to cocoa farming and gold mining. In 2018, Ghana had the highest rate of increase (60%) in the world compared to 2017, with Côte d’Ivoire (26%) in second place.

Mighty Earth has documented several cases of deforestation linked to traders such as Cargill and Bunge in Brazil’s Cerrado, an ecologically valuable area of wooded grasslands not as protected as the Amazon. In May 2018, these two traders were among the five companies that were caught red-handed by Brazilian authorities destroying protected areas and were fined USD 29 million.

The role of agricultural commodity traders as well as that of Switzerland’s financial market in the destruction of Brazil’s rainforest, mainly for the cultivation of soy, was also documented in the Public Eye Magazine from January 2020.

Chain Reaction Research, specialised in sustainability risk analysis, has also documented several cases of deforestation involving Swiss-based traders, primarily the ABCD club, in soy production in Brazil. The six largest agricultural commodity traders, ADM, Bunge, Cargill, LDC, COFCO Int. and Viterra (formerly Glencore Agriculture), in 2019 committed themselves to monitoring their soy supply chains in Brazil’s Cerrado. However, the pledge they signed onto does not include a commitment to end deforestation. Furthermore, the fact that corporate self-regulation alone is not sufficient to tackle deforestation risks was recently confirmed by an assessment by Chain Reaction Research. The assessment pointed out that in Cargill’s updated zero-deforestation policy for soy it remained “unclear as to how the company will reach this goal, and at what pace. The company has given conflicting signals regarding its zero-deforestation policies, including a shifting timeline and levers for implementation.”

© Bruno Manser Fonds BMF

Land grabbing

Another set of problems that often result in human rights violations involves land conflicts, especially large-scale acquisitions of land. Among the rights most affected are the right to food, the right to a healthy environment, and the rights of indigenous peoples. In this context, it is particularly note-worthy that the International Criminal Court announced in 2016 that it would deal with cases of crimes against humanity committed through or resulting from environmental degradation, land grabbing or illegal exploitation of natural resources. As a result, company executives and politicians responsible for such offenses could be brought to justice in The Hague.

Large-scale land acquisitions are one of the most central problems in the industrialised production of agricultural commodities. Between 2006 and 2016, almost 500 cases of land grabbing were documented globally, involving over 30 million hectares of land. Contrary to claims that large-scale land acquisitions primarily involve unused land, land cultivated by small-scale farmers, traditional pastures and densely populated or fertile land are those most affected. Moreover, such large-scale land acquisitions also affect access to water. Spurred by rising demand the extensive production of flex crops such as palm oil, soy, and corn is largely to blame but coffee, cocoa, or tea are also implicated.


For want of a common definition of land grabbing, the Romanian peasants’ rights organisation EcoRuralis has come up with the following understanding: “Land grabbing can be defined as being the control (whether through ownership, lease, concession, contracts, quotas, or general power) of larger than locally-typical amounts of land by any person or entity (public or private, foreign or domestic) via any means (‘legal’ or ‘illegal’) for purposes of speculation, extraction, resource control or commodification at the expense of peasant farmers, agroecology, land stewardship, food sovereignty and human rights.”

One of the most notorious cases of land grabbing involves coffee production in Uganda. The Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) has meticulously documented a case in which the Ugandan Army violently evicted the inhabitants of four villages in 2001 because the government had leased the land to the Kaweri Coffee Plantation Ltd. Kaweri is a subsidiary of the German-based Neumann Kaffee Gruppe (Neumann) who manage their plantations through NKG Tropical Farm Management, based in Switzerland. The legal action to reclaim villagers’ land and properties continues to be obstructed and delayed by the judiciary system in Uganda. To date the evictees have not received remedy and continue to assert their rights.

Public Eye documented this case as well as other cases of land grabbing related to plantations controlled by Swiss traders in a 2021 publication  (only available in French and German).

© Lunae Parracho / Reuters

In the last decade, NGOs such as Oxfam and Survival International have documented the dire living conditions of indigenous peoples in Brazil due to large foreign companies failing to respect the demarcation of indigenous ancestral lands. For example, The Guarani Kaiowá people of Jata Yvary in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state have lost most of their ancestral land to sugar cane plantations and have been forced to live on a small patch of land completely surrounded by sugar cane fields. For many years, the sugar from these fields was sold to the Monteverde mill, which in turn belonged to Swiss-based trading giant Bunge. Unlike many other sugar mill owners that operated in the region, Bunge declared in 2013 that it intended to continue to buy sugar cane produced on the indigenous land until existing contracts expired. 

According to the Missionary Indigenous Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário), 687 indigenous people committed suicide between 2003 and 2015. Furthermore, the Guarani and Kaiowá have suffered from constant attacks by militias formed by powerful farmers. In 2016, the Brazilian Association of Anthropology expressed its indignation at the lack of control by the Brazilian State in fulfilling its constitutional role with regard to protecting the Guarani Kaiowá indigenous communities. The organisation called the suicides, and the disregard of the public authorities thereof, genocidal.

© Norberto Duarte / AFP / GettyImages
Protests against land grabbing in Paraguay

Oxfam has documented another illustrative case of land grabbing. Between 2010 and 2012, Cargill brought huge areas of land in Colombia under their control despite legal restrictions on the acquisition of state land. To accomplish this, Cargill set up no fewer than 36 mailbox companies, which enabled it to exceed the legally prescribed maximum size of land ownership. With more than 50,000 hectares of land, Cargill thus acquired more than 30 times the land legally permitted for a single owner.