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May 13, 2021

As soon as Bill and Melinda Gates announced their separation, the media began speculating on how they would split their farmland. It had only recently become public that Bill and Melinda Gates are the world’s largest individual owners of farmland. The couple has accumulated a “portfolio” of 269,000 acres of rural land. To put this in perspective, it’s an astoundingly large area, six times the size of Washington, D.C.

I was not shocked to learn that Bill and Melinda Gates owned many large farms. Wealthy people and money managers have been grabbing up farmland at increasing rates for more than 10 years, ever since the 2008 financial crisis, as they look for places to grow accumulated wealth. The conversion of farmland into financial assets continues to ramp up with the expectation of reaping financial gains from competition over land. 

If such speculation is not stopped, farmland will become even more unaffordable for a new generation of farmers. Family farms across the United States are going out of business and a reduced number of farmers are surviving by leasing machinery and renting more land in different communities. And although many young people of all backgrounds are entering farming, more would be eager to do so if it was not so difficult to access land and if there were policies that reduce risks and meet basic human rights like access to health care. Ultimately, this leads to the loss of farming as a way of life and to a focus on larger-scale farming for shorter term profit, rather than on community and sustainability. 

Large-scale farms do not feed those who are most food insecure. Instead they usually focus on one or two commodity crops, often for animal feed or for fuel. They grow and market these crops using methods that are harmful to the climate, contributing to deforestation and high levels of emissions, soil erosion, water contamination, and depletion. 

Evidence shows that high-tech approaches to agricultural development have not succeeded in addressing hunger or protecting the environment, and instead give corporations increased control over the food system and disempower small-scale farmers. Large-scale corporate farms, whether organic or conventional, tend to harm the environment and local communities through distant management that eliminates livelihoods and farm biodiversity. 

The already extreme inequality in control of land and natural resources is worsening globally and threatening the right to food. Growing land inequality is caused by the inaction of governments on indigenous and community land rights, along with other government actions that encourage land acquisition by those who control large amounts of money. 

About 3.4 billion people, 45% of the world’s population, live in rural areas. Over 2 billion of them make their living through agricultural work. A recent series of reports found that 70% of global farmland is controlled by 1% of the farms and the poorest half of the world’s rural population controls only 3% of the land by value, with land inequality increasing in all regions of the world.

We need policy action to address land inequality

Land is life. Denying access to land and water for sustenance and shelter to communities is a denial of human rights. This is why land rights are the basis of identity and meaning for so many communities, and why we at ActionAid choose to stand for land rights for indigenous peoples, for farming communities, and for marginalized communities whose rights to food or housing are threatened.

The wealthy and super wealthy are only half the picture when it comes to the takeover of rural resources. Corporations and financial managers are also amassing more and more land across the world. 

The company controlling the largest amount of farmland in the world is the Teacher’s Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), at 2 million acres in Brazil, the United States, and Australia. TIAA manages the retirement money of most of the university employees in the United States and many nonprofits, including ActionAid USA. The fact that our retirement fund manager is the public leader in buying up farmland and contributing to the pressures that threaten the right to food, moved us to help organize a campaign to get TIAA to stop accumulation and speculation in farmland. 

Influential institutions and individuals can speak up for local land rights. They can announce that they will invest in initiatives that support control and management of land by indigenous peoples and local communities, and support broad based rural economies. However, statements and commitments by institutions and individuals are not enough. We need policy action to address existing land inequality and to regulate powerful actors who will not follow a good example. 

The UN Land Tenure Guidelines provide a road map, supporting broad recognition of many types of land rights especially for indigenous peoples, marginalized communities, and vulnerable groups. States should regulate and prevent the harm from large-scale land acquisitions and use the tool of placing ceilings on extreme inequality of land accumulation by individuals and corporations, while recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples and communities to own and manage forests and common lands. 

These steps are crucial, and not just in poorer countries. We need to address land inequality and the threats to the right to food in the United States as well. Public universities and other types of institutions are being pushed to grapple with the need to return or make reparations for land wealth they manage that was stolen from indigenous peoples. In the U.S. Senate, the Land Justice for Black Farmers’ Act is an important proposal for helping farmers of color to buy and produce from the land that was once taken from their communities through discrimination and injustice. 

Land should return to local control

The Gateses own land in 12 states, which would represent opportunities to facilitate reparations for Native American peoples who were dispossessed of a whole continent and many of whom today lack access to healthy food and to ancestral homelands. The Gateses also own large farms in states where reparations are needed for rural Black farming communities that have been dispossessed. For example, the couple owns 27,000 acres in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, which is completely rural and 40% Black, while only 23 of the 633 farmers there are Black

Companies, managers of wealth, and wealthy individuals who want to be socially responsible must stop accumulating land and instead return it to local control. They should work to solve this problem, not make it worse.

As people working to build a more just world, we ask that wealthy people do the right thing. But we need to do more than that. We need to demand policies and regulations that end concentration of farmland and rebuild local communities.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is separate from the Gateses private wealth, supports the ActionAid federation’s work on women’s rights and economic empowerment in east Africa and our work with women farmers’ groups to demand that African governments scale up public investment in agriculture and enact policy change to support the needs of smallholder farmers.