In November 2022, word got out that Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the freshly minted president of the Philippines, wanted to set up a sovereign wealth fund. People scratched their heads. What wealth? The Philippines is mired in debt! It was quickly understood that this was a kind of vanity project, meant to improve the image of a man who came to power because of his family name.
Marcos’ father ruled the Philippines from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s with an iron fist. Known more for kleptocracy and the brutality of martial law, the Marcos name needed a face-lift, local media put it. Marcos boasted that a sovereign wealth fund would boost investor confidence and attract resources to fund big projects in infrastructure or agriculture. He even dubbed it “Maharlika Fund”, a nod to the mythical warrior figure that his father claimed to personify during World War II.
Vanity aside, Marcos’ proposal raised fears of graft and corruption. After all, not long ago, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund (known as 1MDB) was exposed as a multi-billion dollar money laundering scheme for the personal benefit of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who now sits in jail. Yet, Marcos managed to get his proposal onto his country’s legislative agenda in a matter of weeks, and brought it to international investors in Davos and Tokyo for their approval as well.
What are these “sovereign wealth funds”? How are they being used? What link, if any, do they have with people’s struggles around food sovereignty, land grabbing and today’s deepening climate crisis?
Rise of sovereign wealth funds
The first sovereign wealth funds were set up in the 19th century, and grew slowly throughout the 20th. The idea, at first, was rather simple. If a state has excess resources – perhaps mineral wealth or a sudden boom in foreign exchange from exports – these should be tucked away for future use for the benefit of society.
Norway is the classic example. In the late 1960s, oil was discovered off its coast. Overnight, the country become unfathomably rich. After much debate, the government decided to set up a wealth fund – basically a piggy-bank belonging to all Norwegians. It is fed by a tax levied on the oil and gas extracted from Norway’s seabed, plus the revenues of Norway’s state-owned oil and gas companies.
This wealth is meant to be used “for present and future generations”. To ensure this, no one is allowed to touch the underlying pot of money itself, but the interest it earns each year goes into the national budget to pay for things like public health care, generous parental leaves, retirement pensions and public infrastructure. In concrete terms, Norway’s wealth fund contains $1.1 trillion. That money is invested in 9,000 publicly-listed companies across 70 countries around the world. The investments generate a return of about 3% a year, which is what goes into the national budget to provide everyone in Norway with those public services. It has become a source of national pride and unity across the political spectrum.
Many sovereign wealth funds were set up with a similar logic. The “wealth” may come from diamonds (Botswana) or copper (Chile), foreign currency reserves (China) or export earnings (Saudi Arabia). Even the state of Texas in the United States wrote into its constitution back in the 1850s that “available public lands” should be used to finance public schools. To do this, lands were either sold outright or were leased with the proceeds feeding a Permanent School Fund (a sovereign wealth fund) run by a trio of local civil servants. In all of these cases, the funds are created with resources that arguably belong to everyone and serve a public interest objective such as guaranteeing social rights (e.g. retirement for all in Norway) or covering national budget deficits in times of crisis (e.g. as happened with Covid-19 in Peru) or providing children with access to education (Texas).
Recently, however, governments have started diverging from this logic. Increasingly, sovereign wealth funds are being set up with no resources or wealth or sovereign character to speak of. Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund, which was set up in 2021, is more like a “development” fund. It aims to secure foreign investment from companies, banks and funds in order to build local infrastructure and energy projects. Not much different from what the government already does. The Philippines’ proposal is more like a “public-private partnership” fund, as foreign investors will be asked to do joint ventures with the state or with local businesses. At one point, the government was proposing that the fund should be handed over to the private sector and listed on the stock market! Quite a number of small countries with no surpluses to speak of have set up sovereign wealth funds by offering citizenship to wealthy individuals (leading to corruption scandals as well).
Over the past two decades, the number of sovereign wealth funds has surged (see graph) and there are now more than 100 sovereign wealth funds around the world. Collectively, they hold $10 trillion – which makes them the third largest economy, after the US and China, if they were a country. That figure is expected to reach $17 trillion by 2030. While most sovereign funds are national in scope, some are sub-national. The state of Queensland, in Australia, has one. Palestine has one. Even the city of Milan has one.
Some of these funds invest only abroad, some invest only at home and some do both. Key sectors they put their money in, to capture earnings, include energy, technology, health, finance and real estate. All told, sovereign funds are so massive that most people have probably had some connection to them, as they own bits of Alibaba, Flipkart, Uber, Slack, Grab, major airports, the world’s top football teams and social media like Twitter. Anyone paying for these is actually helping sovereign wealth funds take money home.
And while it seems to be a trend among political elites these days to think that setting up such structures can bring funds into the global South, 80% of sovereign wealth fund assets is currently parked in Europe and North America. In fact, one-third is in the US alone.
Agriculture: a critical concern
In dollar terms, food and agriculture represent just 2-3% of all sovereign wealth fund investments. While that sounds small, it is a politically sensitive and strategic sector for many governments. Contributing to national food security has been a historic role for sovereign funds, and it is a vital one for those of Singapore and the Gulf states.
At least 42 sovereign funds are currently invested in food and agriculture (see table). Some are major players, but many are less visible (see box). Their investments may be in largescale farmland acquisitions and production, such as orange groves in Brazil, cattle ranches in Australia or vertical pig farms in China. Some take the form of ownership stakes in global food commodity traders that ship grains, oilseeds and coffee across our oceans, like Bunge, COFCO or Louis Dreyfus. Yet others are positions in food retail systems like supermarket chains or delivery services, and the digital technologies that these operations increasingly rely on.
A handful of actors form the centre of gravity of global agricultural investing by sovereign funds. They are Temasek and GIC in Singapore; PIF in Saudi Arabia; Mubadala and ADQ in UAE; QIA in Qatar; RDIF in Russia; and COFIDES in Spain (see map). The Singaporeans and the Gulf states invest with their own food needs as a priority. RDIF brings big investors into Russia to help finance its export-oriented agribusiness sector. And COFIDES funds food projects around the world with one catch: a Spanish company must be directly involved in and profit from it, such as Borges with almond production in Europe or Pescanova with fish farming in Latin America. (Actually, there is a second catch: all of COFIDES’ overseas food and agriculture investments are loans.)
Quite a number of sovereign wealth fund ventures in agriculture are linked to concerns about land and water grabbing, whether directly and indirectly. In December 2022, Abu Dhabi’s government-owned ADQ, which has $110 billion in assets, got hold of 167,00 hectares of farmland in northeast Sudan. It plans to grow sesame, wheat, cotton and alfalfa there, while it builds a massive new port nearby to ship the goods out. ADQ already owns:
45% of Louis Dreyfus Company, with its massive land holdings in Latin America, growing sugarcane, citrus, rice and coffee;
a majority stake in Unifrutti, with 15,000 ha of fruit farms in Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Philippines, Spain, Italy and South Africa; and
Al Dahra, a large agribusiness conglomerate controlling and cultivating 118,315 ha of farmland in Romania, Spain, Serbia, Morocco, Egypt, Namibia and the US.
Therefore, the concerns are quite serious. Al Dahra stands accused of draining aquifers in Arizona, just so that it can produce hay to transport back to UAE to feed local dairy herds.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), one of the world’s top ten sovereign wealth funds in terms of assets, has $13.7 billion invested in agriculture. It owns several massive agribusiness conglomerates focused on livestock, dairy and fisheries. In 2021, it took 100% control of the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Company (SALIC) which is engaged in meat and cereal production in Canada, Ukraine, India, Brazil, Australia and the UK. The scale is enormous. In India, PIF produces its staple, basmati rice.
From Brazil, it gets its beef. In Australia, it operates 200,000 ha for sheep grazing and also buys lamb and mutton directly from producers. In Ukraine, it has 195,000 ha growing wheat, barley, maize and rice. PIF also owns 35% of Olam Agri, a major palm oil producer, and is building the largest vertical farm in the entire Middle East and North Africa region. It is very strange, then, to learn that PIF’s new green financing instrument will explicitly exclude funding for any projects or expenditures associated with industrial agriculture or livestock! It shows the doublespeak of investors that expand intensive industrial food systems while needing to flash climate credentials.
Another very big player is Qatar. Its sovereign wealth fund has massive land holdings in Australia, through a stake in the 4.4 million ha Paraway Pastoral Company dedicated to livestock production. The fund allows Qatar to source its organic food supplies through Canada’s Sunrise Foods, which operates in Turkey, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine and US. It owns poultry and seafood companies in Oman, and is now developing agriculture supply chains in East Africa. The Qatari wealth fund is connected to a Russian oil company which owns 50% of Agrokultura, which operates 200,000 ha of farmland in Russia. It also owns 14% of AdecoAgro with its 472,862 ha hectares under production in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. It is now going into Kazakhstan for the same purposes – and in direct competition with the UAE.
It is important to note that many of these arrangements between sovereign wealth funds and global agribusiness involve political guarantees. Qatar is one of the biggest investors in Glencore, with whom it has a deal to ensure its access to grains and shipping services in case of need. The same is true with Qatar and Turkey’s Tiryaki Agro Group. The fund’s agricultural arm, Hassad Food, has its own agreement with Sunrise Foods which ensures that in the event of any shortage in the Qatari market, the country’s need for grain, oilseeds and wheat will be met on a priority basis. Similarly, when Abu Dhabi’s ADQ bought 45% of Louis Dreyfus – the world’s third largest commodity trader – it signed a side deal giving it priority access to food shipments in times of global crisis, as the world experienced recently during both Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
It is fair to say that the political strategy of leveraging sovereign wealth to get access to global food supplies works. What is never mentioned is at what cost. For many of these big investment projects expand and entrench largescale corporate agribusiness, with its contingent slew of land conflicts, water pollution, indigenous rights abuses, labour violations and spiralling climate emissions. And when it comes to the Gulf states or Singapore, these are very small populations draining the resources of much bigger ones. With sovereign funds, scale is baked in. Even when they do try to reckon with social and environmental contingencies, as in the case of PIF, their attempts at making investments green or socially responsible are shallow at best. Only Norway’s stands out as making strong commitments to scrutinise and withdraw from agribusiness companies associated with social and ecological crimes, as it has done with meat packers and soy producers in Brazil (Minerva, Marfrig, SLC Agricola and JBS) as well as rubber giant Halcyon Agri.
So, to answer the question: what do these funds have to do with food sovereignty? The answer is: it’s twisted. They do provide food security for a few countries. And political elites increasingly like to use the term food sovereignty to characterise these missions, as it serves their nationalist, territorial and militarist frameworks. But sovereign wealth funds crush real visions of food sovereignty as they take resources away from local communities and push a capitalist, industrialist food system – be it green or not.
Putting the public interest first
Sovereign wealth funds can be a good idea if they really are sovereign (run by the people), if the resources they harness are democratically sourced and organised, and if they have a genuine public welfare mandate. We actually need more commitment to public approaches to reverse the growing inequality and privatisation that is undermining people’s rights to healthcare, housing, transportation, food, education and retirement in most countries around the world.
But there is a danger. There are increasing calls to set up sovereign wealth funds to solve government problems – from building a new capital city in Indonesia to plugging an alleged deficit in France’s pension system. But these newer funds are just tools to channel money into government coffers or private enterprises. They are not built on any collective resource or aimed at protecting a public wealth for the benefit of future generations. They seem to have little to do with traditional sovereign wealth funds, apart from the name. For that reason, they should be scrutinised and if they don’t genuinely serve the public interest they should be stopped. Similarly, those that contribute to land or water grabbing should be challenged and stopped, too.
Agriculture may not be the number one sector that these funds gravitate towards to generate wealth. But politically, geopolitically and strategically, food security is a core concern of theirs and will continue to be, requiring our critical scrutiny as well.
We need good public services that provide for public well-being. Sovereign wealth funds – despite their name – need to be put to a more scrupulous test to see if they have a role to play in that agenda.
Less visible players: Big players aside, many sovereign wealth funds participate in financing the direction of food and agriculture.
• Angola’s sovereign wealth fund is investing in food and agriculture in Africa through a private equity fund that is targetting the production of maize, beans, soybeans, rice and cattle.
• Australia’s sovereign wealth fund has a Future Drought Fund since 2019. Currently holding A$4.5 billion, its sole aim is to “provide secure, continuous funding to support initiatives that enhance the drought resilience of Australian farms and communities.” Its investments must deliver returns of 2-3% above the consumer price index.
• Bolivia has a sovereign wealth fund that was set up in 2012 with state surplus funds and a loan from the central bank. It invests domestically in both public and private enterprises involved in honey production, fruit processing, aquaculture, dairy, quinoa and stevia.
• Brunei’s new sovereign wealth fund is considering investing in agriculture, in partnership with the Malaysian Investment Development Authority.
• Not much is known about how China’s sovereign wealth funds invest. The China Investment Corporation has $1.3 trillion, making it the largest in the world. It invests in agriculture overseas and reported a remarkable return of 14.27% on its overseas holdings in 2021. Equally remarkable, alternative investments, which include private equity and farmland, are said to account for 47% of its overseas portfolio. China’s National Social Security Fund is also a sovereign wealth fund and is invested domestically in agriculture through its private equity portfolio.
• France’s sovereign fund is known to be a big investor in agriculture and food, both domestically and abroad. One very controversial foreign project it is connected to is led by Arise IIP, a subsidiary of Olam, in Chad.
• Gabon’s sovereign wealth fund, built from oil revenues, runs a private equity fund that invests in the food and agriculture sector. It also invests directly in agriculture and farmland projects at home.
• The National Development Fund of Iran has some $24 billion, most of it from oil and gas revenues and all of it invested domestically. According to some sources, 1% is invested in water and agriculture, including farmland ownership, a sector the fund wants to invest more in.
• Ithmar Capital, a state investment company, serves as Morocco’s sovereign wealth fund. Details are lacking but their strategy is to co-invest in Moroccan agribusiness operations with foreigners such as Spain’s COFIDES or Gulf state investors.
• Nigeria, like Abu Dabhi and Spain, has its sovereign wealth fund investing in fertiliser production. This is a very strategic concern.
• Palestine’s sovereign wealth fund is a public company that does local impact investing. Its initial funds came from the Palestinian Authority. It is invested in a 50 hectares seedless grape farm, looking into investing in animal feed production and helping set up a National Agriculture Investment Company.
• Türkiye Wealth Fund has 2% of its investments in food and agriculture, as of 2019.
• In the US, the states of Texas, New Mexico and Alaska have sovereign wealth funds that are heavily invested in farmland, whether directly or through private equity funds. The agribusiness operations they fund are in some cases domestic and in others overseas (usually in the Southern Cone of Latin America or Australia).
• Vietnam’s State Capital Investment Corporation is invested in agriculture/farmland through a joint venture with the State General Reserve Fund of Oman, showing how co-investing is a common strategy of sovereign funds.
Sovereign wealth funds invested in farmland/food/agriculture (2023)
UAE – Abu Dhabi
UAE – Dubai
UAE – Abu Dhabi
UAE – Abu Dhabi
USA – AK
Australia – QLD
USA – TX
USA – TX
UAE – Dubai
USA – NM
New Mexico SIC
Canada – SK
AUM (assets under management) figures from Global SWF, January 2023
Engagement in food/farmland/agriculture assessed by GRAIN
 Reuters, “Sudan to develop Red Sea port in $6-bln initial pact with Emirati group”, 13 Dec 2022, https://www.farmlandgrab.org/31347.
 Ella Nilsen, “Wells are running dry in drought-weary Southwest as foreign-owned farms guzzle water to feed cattle overseas“, CNN, 27 Nov 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/11/05/us/arizona-water-foreign-owned-farms-climate/index.html
 AeroFarms, “PIF and AeroFarms sign joint venture agreement to build indoor vertical farms in Saudi Arabia and the wider MENA region”, 1 Feb 2023, https://www.aerofarms.com/2023/02/01/pif-and-aerofarms-sign-joint-venture-agreement-to-build-indoor-vertical-farms-in-saudi-arabia-and-the-wider-mena-region/
 Public Investment Fund, “Public Investment Fund Green Finance Framework”, February 2022, https://www.pif.gov.sa/Investors%20Files%20EN/PIF%20Green%20Finance%20Framework.pdf
 See Hassad Food, “Strategic local and international investments along with global partnerships to satisfy the market needs from grains and wheat”, 28 Mar 2022, https://www.hassad.com/2022/03/28/strategic-local-and-international-investments-along-with-global-partnerships-to-satisfy-the-market-needs-from-grains-and-wheat/
 Reuters, “Commodity group Louis Dreyfus completes stake sale to ADQ”, 10 Sep 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/commodity-group-louis-dreyfus-completes-stake-sale-adq-2021-09-10/.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is due to publish a new Energy Sector Strategy before the end of 2023. A total of 130 civil society organizations from over 40 countries have released a statement calling on the EBRD to end finance for all fossil fuels, including gas.
From 2018 to 2021, the EBRD invested EUR 2.9 billion in the fossil energy sector, with the majority of this support going to gas. This makes it the third biggest funder of fossil fuels among all multilateral development banks, behind the World Bank Group and the Islamic Development Bank.
The EBRD has already excluded coal and upstream oil and gas fields from its financing. The draft Energy Sector Strategy further excludes oil transportation and oil-fired electricity generation. However, the draft strategy would continue to allow some investment in new fossil gas pipelines and other transportation infrastructure, as well as gas power generation and heating.
In the statement, the civil society organizations point out that any new support to gas risks locking in outdated energy infrastructure in places that need investments in clean energy the most. At the same time, they highlight, ending support to fossil gas is necessary, not only for climate security, but also for ensuring energy security, since continued investment in gas exposes countries of operation to high and volatile energy prices that can have a severe impact on their ability to reach development targets. Moreover, they underscore that supporting new gas transportation infrastructure is not a solution to the current energy crisis, given that new infrastructure would not come online for several years, well after the crisis has passed.
The signatories of the statement call on the EBRD to amend the Energy Sector Strategy to
fully exclude new investments in midstream and downstream gas projects;
avoid loopholes involving the use of unproven or uneconomic technologies, as well as aspirational but meaningless mitigation measures such as “CCS-readiness”; and
strengthen the requirements for financial intermediaries where the intended nature of the sub-transactions is not known to exclude fossil fuel finance across the entire value chain.
Joel Gindo thought he could finally own and operate the farm of his dreams when a neighbor put up 160 acres of cropland for sale in Brookings County, S.D., two years ago. Five thousand or six thousand dollars an acre should do the trick, Mr. Gindo estimated.
But at auction, Mr. Gindo watched helplessly as the price continued to climb until it hit $11,000 an acre, double what he had budgeted for.
“I just couldn’t compete with how much people are paying, with people paying 10 grand,” he said. “And for someone like me who doesn’t have an inheritance somewhere sitting around, a lump sum of money sitting around, everything has to be financed.”
What is happening in South Dakota is playing out in farming communities across the nation as the value of farmland soars, hitting record highs this year and often pricing out small or beginning farmers. In the state, farmland values surged by 18.7 percent from 2021 to 2022, one of the highest increases in the country, according to the most recent figures from the Agriculture Department. Nationwide, values increased by 12.4 percent and reached $3,800 an acre, the highest on record since 1970, with cropland at $5,050 an acre and pastureland at $1,650 an acre.
A series of economic forces — high prices for commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat; a robust housing market; low interest rates until recently; and an abundance of government subsidies — have converged to create a “perfect storm” for farmland values, said Jason Henderson, a dean at the College of Agriculture at Purdue University and a former official at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
As a result, small farmers like Mr. Gindo are now going up against deep-pocketed investors, including private equity firms and real estate developers, prompting some experts to warn of far-reaching consequences for the farming sector.
Young farmers named finding affordable land for purchase the top challenge in 2022 in a September survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit group.
Already, the supply of land is limited. About 40 percent of farmland in the United States is rented, most of it owned by landlords who are not actively involved in farming. And the amount of land available for purchase is extremely scant, with less than 1 percent of farmland sold on the open market annually.
The booming housing market, among a number of factors, has bolstered the value of farmland, particularly in areas close to growing city centers.
“What we have seen over the past year or two was, when housing starts to go up with new building construction, that puts pressure on farmland, especially on those urban fringes,” Professor Henderson explained. “And that leads to a cascading ripple effect into land values even farther and farther away.”
Government subsidies to farmers have also soared in recent years, amounting to nearly 39 percent of net farm income in 2020. On top of traditional programs like crop insurance payments, the Agriculture Department distributed $23 billion to farmers hurt by President Donald J. Trump’s trade war from 2018 to 2020 and $45.3 billion in pandemic-related assistance in 2020 and 2021. (The government’s contribution to farm income decreased to 20 percent in 2021 and is forecast to be about 8 percent in 2022.)
Those payments, or even the very promise of additional assistance, increase farmland values as they create a safety net and signal that agricultural land is a safe bet, research shows.
“There’s an expectation in the market that the government’s going to play a role when farm incomes drop, so that definitely affects investment behavior,” said Jennifer Ifft, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.
Eager investors are increasingly turning to farmland in the face of volatility in the stock and real estate markets. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and a billionaire, is the biggest private farmland owner in the country and recently won approval to buy 2,100 acres in North Dakota for $13.5 million.
The number of private equity funds seeking to buy stakes in farmland has ticked higher, said Tim Koch, a vice president at an agricultural financial cooperative in the Midwest, Farm Credit Services of America. Pension funds also consider farmland a stable investment, Professor Ifft said.
Farmers, too, have witnessed an influx of outside interest. Nathaniel Bankhead, who runs a farm and garden consulting business in Chattanooga, Tenn., has banded with a group of other agricultural workers to save up to $500,000 to buy about 60 acres of land. For months, the collective has been repeatedly outbid by real estate developers, investors looking to diversify their portfolios and urban transplants with “delusional agrarian dreams,” he said.
“Places that I have looked at as potential farmland are being bought up in cash before I can even go through the process that a working-class person has to do to access land,” he said. “And the ironic thing is, those are my clients, like I get hired by them to do as a hobby what I’m trying to do as a livelihood. So it’s tough to watch.”
Mr. Bankhead characterized the current landscape as a form of “digital feudalism” for aspiring working farmers. Wealthy landowners drive up land prices, contract with agricultural designers like himself to enact their vision and then hire a caretaker to work the land — pricing out those very employees from becoming owners themselves.
“They kind of lock that person to this new flavor of serfdom where it’s, you might be decently paid, you’ve got access to it, but it will never be yours,” he said.
Unable to afford land in her native Florida, Tasha Trujillo recently moved her flower farm to South Carolina. Ms. Trujillo had grown cut flowers and kept bees on a parcel of her brother-in-law’s five-acre plant nursery in Redland, a historically agricultural region in the Miami area, about 20 miles south of downtown.
When she sought to expand her farm and buy her own land, she quickly found that prices were out of reach, with real estate developers driving up land values and pushing out agriculture producers.
A five-acre property in the Redlands now costs $500,000 to $700,000, Ms. Trujillo said. “So I essentially didn’t have a choice but to leave Miami and Florida as a whole.”
“Farming is a very stressful profession,” she added. “When you throw in land insecurity, it makes it 20 times worse. So there were many, many times where I thought: ‘Oh my God. I’m not going to be able to do this. This isn’t feasible.’”
As small and beginning farmers are shut out — the latest agricultural census said that the average age of farmers inched up to 57.5 — the prohibitively high land values may have ripple effects on the sector at large.
Brian Philpot, the chief executive of AgAmerica, an agricultural lending institution, said his firm’s average loan size had increased as farms consolidated, squeezing out family farms. This, he argued, could lead to a farm crisis.
“Do we have the skills and the next generation of people to farm it? And two, if the answer is going to be, we’re going to have passive owners own this land and lease it out, is that very sustainable?” he said.
Professor Henderson also warned that current farmers may face increased financial risk as they seek to leverage their high farmland values, essentially betting the farm to expand it.
“They’ll buy more land but they’ll use debt to do it,” he said. “They’ll stretch themselves out.”
Economists and lenders said farmland values appeared to have plateaued in recent months, as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and the cost of fertilizer and diesel soared. But with high commodity prices forecast for next year, some believe values will remain high.
A native of Tanzania who moved to South Dakota about a decade ago, Mr. Gindo bought seven acres of land to raise livestock in 2019 and currently rents an additional 40 acres to grow corn and soybeans — all the while working full time as a comptroller to make ends meet.
For now, he has cooled off his search for a farm of his own even as he dreams of passing on that land to his son. The more immediate concern, he said, was whether his landlord would raise his rent. So far, the landlord has refrained because Mr. Gindo helps him out around the farm.
“He really doesn’t have to lend me his land,” Mr. Gindo said. “He can make double that with someone else.”
In Florida, Ms. Trujillo said, the owner of the land where her brother-in-law’s nursery sits has spoken of selling the plot while prices remain high, so he too has begun looking for his own property.
“That’s a big fear for a lot of these farmers and nursery owners who are renting land, because you just never know when the owner’s just going to say: ‘You know what? This year, I’m selling and you’ve got to go,’” she said.
In Tennessee, Mr. Bankhead said he considered giving up on owning a farm “multiple times a day” as friends who have been longtime farmers leave the profession.
But so far, he remains committed to staying in the field and doing “the work of trying to keep land in families’ hands and showing there’s more to do with this land than to sell it to real estate developers,” he said. “But the pain of not having my own garden and not being able to have my animals where I live, it never stings any less.”
Communities in Karamoja face an uphill task organising to beat international capital and authoritarian politics.
Rupa, Uganda – A handful of artisanal miners stand shirtless in an open pit, breaking boulders that glint white in the sun. Nearby, soldiers stand sullenly at the gate of the Sunbelt Marble Mine and Factory, owned by Chinese businessmen who have sunk $13m into the project.
These are the two faces of the mining rush in the Karamoja region of northeast Uganda: small-scale freelance miners, toiling with basic equipment for scant reward, and a mix of wealthy foreign and local investors protected by the state.
Here in Rupa, a sub-county of Moroto district, the locals have seen companies come and go, buying up land and dividing communities. So in 2017, when they got wind that a Chinese company was coming, they were determined to do things differently: this time, they were going to organise.
It was a pioneering attempt to ensure that local people benefitted from mining, building on customary ownership and exploiting little-used provisions of Ugandan land law.
But the story of how it worked – and how it did not – shows just how hard it is for communities to organise in the face of international capital and authoritarian politics.
Many of the 1.2 million people in Karamoja are cattle-keepers, driving their herds across grasslands managed by clan and custom. The rains are fickle, so negotiating access to pasture involves an element of give-and-take.
But the mining companies that are exploring the region want something solid and immovable: the minerals that lie beneath the soil, including marble, limestone, copper and gold.
In the early 2000s, the army forcefully disarmed the gun-wielding cattle-raiders who once roamed the plains, and speculators rushed in during the ensuing peace.
“The first businesspeople who came were taking over the land,” says Simon Nangiro, chairman of the Karamoja Miners Association, which represents small-scale miners in the region. “Companies come with military accompaniments … [They’re] negotiating behind the scenes with people who are vulnerable.”
According to the mining cadastre, the government has granted full mining leases in Karamoja to four companies – Sunbelt, Tororo Cement, DAO Marble and Mechanized Agro – across 79 square km (31 square miles) of land.
It has also issued licences for exploration to dozens of other local and foreign companies on roughly 4,000 square km (1,544 square miles) and is considering applications on nearly 5,000 square km (1,931 square miles) more.
Documents like leases, licences and land titles are how the modern state speaks – but it is a language foreign to Karamoja, where ownership is rarely written down and only a quarter of people can read.
“Here in Karamoja we have a customary land tenure system,” explains John Bosco Logwee, an elder in Rupa and one of the leaders of organising efforts there. “As a result, people [from outside] looked at the land and thought it does not belong to anybody.”
In Uganda as a whole, an estimated 80 percent of the land is held customarily although exact figures are hard to come by. The problem of proving who owns what worries everyone from activists, who warn of land grabs, to the World Bank, which wants to spur rural property markets.
Under the 1998 Land Act, communities can create “communal land associations” (CLAs) to defend their collective land rights. More than 600 have been incorporated nationwide, often with World Bank support.
Some of the first to be established were in Karamoja, where 52 were set up in 2012-2013 by a non-governmental organisation, the Uganda Land Alliance. According to Edmond Owor, its former executive director, the CLAs had some early successes in fending off fraudulent investors. But in 2016, the Alliance itself collapsed due to internal governance problems, leaving the fledgling CLAs on their own.
“The creation of a CLA is a very easy process, and that’s where the easy work ends,” says Simon Longoli, executive director of the Karamoja Development Forum (KDF), a civil society group based in Moroto. “We find it very difficult to trust a piece of paper to ensure the rights of the community over a piece of land.”
What people really needed, he thought, was organising and capacity building to assert the rights they had on paper. In short, they needed power.
Communities in Rupa had been at the forefront of Karamoja’s mining rush. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch described how two foreign-owned companies had come to the area and started exploration without the consent of the locals.
“International capital has come into Karamoja, it has allied itself with powerful political and military elites at the centre, facilitated by influence peddlers,” says David Pulkol, a Rupa indigene who formerly served as a member of parliament, government minister and head of Uganda’s external intelligence agency. “Those three are in the same bed, dispossessing the ordinary people of their livelihoods.”
So in 2017, the three clans of Rupa sub-county joined their CLAs together to form the Rupa Community Development Trust (RUCODET), taking out the formal title to the land on behalf of 35,000 people.
Longoli and his KDF colleagues arranged training for the trust’s leaders in negotiation and other skills. No other community in Karamoja had organised on such a scale to take on mining companies.
The arrival of the Sunbelt mine would give RUCODET its first major test. Under Ugandan law, all minerals belong to the government. But landowners have “surface rights” to the land itself, which have often been trampled by mining companies.
Now, thanks to RUCODET, the Chinese investors would have to negotiate with the community. “It was tough,” says Logwee, the elder. “We had no experience before of that kind of thing.”
Sunbelt had strong backing from Operation Wealth Creation, a sprawling Ugandan military programme that started out giving seeds to farmers and was now helping build fruit factories, disburse credit and develop the minerals sector.
The programme is led by Salim Saleh, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s ubiquitous brother, whom many consider the second-most powerful man in the country. He is a feared general with extensive business interests, who has been accused by UN experts of grabbing resources during the 1998-2003 Congo war – an allegation he has always denied.
As part of the negotiations, a team from RUCODET travelled 400km to Kapeeka, where a Chinese-owned industrial park has been constructed close to Saleh’s personal residence. Longoli of KDF says that some leaders in RUCODET and in local government were taking calls from Saleh himself to get an agreement signed.
Major Kiconco Tabaro, a spokesman for Operation Wealth Creation, claims that it was not directly involved in the negotiations but has “a strategic working relationship with all ministries, departments and agencies of government” to “help bring about socioeconomic transformation”.
It was hard to say no to a man like Saleh, and the leaders of RUCODET did not. In 2018, they signed away surface rights to 3.3 square km of land to Sunbelt for 21 years, receiving compensation of 1.8 billion shillings ($500,000), they say.
By one yardstick, that was a lot of money. Small-scale miners in Rupa say they get just 100,000 shillings ($28) from traders for filling a 7-tonne truck with stone, a task which takes four people at least a week.
But Sunbelt expects gross revenues of $30m a year, according to the 2021 manifesto of the ruling National Resistance Movement – making the payout to RUCODET equivalent to one week’s turnover. A spokesman for Sunbelt declined an interview request for this story.
The leaders of RUCODET used 100 million shillings ($28,000) to set up 94 educational scholarships for schoolchildren and university students. Some of the rest was handed out as cash to community members.
But there was protest from those who felt left out and mutterings that money was misused or even stolen – allegations which Logwee dismisses as “speculation”. Three people familiar with the matter told Al Jazeera that the lawyer who advised RUCODET charged 400 million shillings ($110,000) for his services, which included the cost of surveying and titling the land.
Then tragedy struck. The leader of RUCODET was a man called Marjory Dan Apollo Loyomo, a brother of the former spy chief Pulkol. “He was very strong, he was very charismatic, he was very committed,” recalls Longoli. He was also the elected chairman of Rupa sub-county, which meant he had to represent his people in disputes.
In 2019, after a decade of peace, the armed cattle-raiders started to make a comeback. Loyomo had disagreed with aspects of the army’s handling of the issue.
On December 17 that year, according to the UN Human Rights office, the army called him to a military detach in Rupa. It had impounded cattle after a raid; local people were angry. Loyomo, as sub-county chairman, tried to deliberate with the officers. A soldier shot him dead.
The regional army commander was transferred soon afterwards. His successor, Brigadier General Joseph Balikudembe, says that he cannot comment on the incident due to ongoing proceedings against the soldiers involved.
Nobody that Al Jazeera spoke to wanted to speculate on the reasons for Loyomo’s killing, but everyone agreed that it was a devastating setback.
“The loss of a torchbearer, the founder chairman, has been a very big loss for RUCODET,” says Logwee, who has succeeded him to the role.
“He was fighting really for his people,” argues Joyce Nayor, an activist and Rupa resident who is critical of the trust’s current leadership. “Since he died, RUCODET has also died a natural death.”
Hardly any local people got jobs in the Sunbelt mine, Al Jazeera heard on two visits to the area with local activists. Some small-scale miners have been allowed to remain in a corner of the land that was allocated to the company, where they break boulders for sale.
They complain that Sunbelt tried to push them into an ever-smaller area and take away the traders who would buy their stone – and that RUCODET has done little to help.
“RUCODET is there in name only,” says Isaiah Aleu, a miner.
Land trusts and CLAs are promising tools for communities to defend their rights, say land campaigners. But there is no consensus about how they should navigate turbulent political waters.
Pulkol is now helping build RUCODET’s capacity through the Africa Leadership Institute, a non-governmental organisation he leads. He thinks the best hope for Karamoja is to work with investors and government for shared benefits, rather than to block them altogether.
Longoli, the activist, is not so sure. Often when it comes to minerals, “the best deal is just no deal”, he says. “RUCODET, because of pressure from above or pressure from within the institution, was in a hurry to close deals.”
Yet he remains hopeful that organisations like RUCODET can be the basis for something better. “These are not perfect but they give a bridge somewhere,” he says.
The next test is coming soon.
In Loyoro sub-county of Kaabong district, 100km (62 miles) to the north, a new company called Moroto Ateker Cement is exploring for limestone. Pulkol, representing the local government of Moroto, sits on its board.
The state-owned Uganda Development Corporation has a 45 percent stake in the project. The seven clans of Loyoro have started the process of forming a trust, after the RUCODET model.
Meanwhile, in the bush, surrounded by soldiers and tsetse flies, exploratory drilling machines bore down into their land.