Will War in Ukraine Escalate the Global Land Rush?

February 23, 2023

When Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, economic analysts projected that conflict-linked disruption would contribute to global price hikes for food, energy, and other goods. As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, researchers from UC Berkeley, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Politecnico di Milano warn that ongoing economic fallout may fuel a new wave of large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) across the globe. 

The paper, published today in Science, draws parallels between the economic conditions created by the ongoing war and the financial landscape that resulted in several LSLAs since the turn of the century. “We expect to see a new surge of land acquisitions and land grabs by powerful agribusiness corporations, and the dispossession of rural communities,” said lead author Jampel Dell’Angelo, a professor at Vrije Univeristeit Amsterdam. 

"These changes will take place through complex and interdependent interactions that will have cascading and long-lasting effects on multiple dimensions of rural development," he said.

Russia and Ukraine supply more than a quarter of the world’s wheat, a supply chain that has been disrupted as a result of the war. Co-author Paolo D'Odorico, a UC Berkeley professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, said corporations may use this period of low supply and high demand to expand crop production to uncultivated land “at the expense of wildlife reserves or soil conservation programs.”

“We can expect agricultural intensification on land that has already been acquired by agribusiness investors, and a new surge of land investments,” he added. 

LSLAs have been at the center of contentious debate between local communities and parties who saw them as an opportunity for rural development. According to the paper, an estimated 45 million hectares of land—roughly comparable to the size of Sweden or Morocco—have been acquired by large agribusinesses since 2000. 

Co-author Maria Cristina Rulli, a professor at Politecnico di Milano, said these deals often lack participatory decision making and informed consent from local communities and result in unbalanced power relations, environmental damage, and losses in livelihood.

“Our previous studies on this subject have shown that LSLAs often target forested land that is subsequently ‘developed’ through forest clearing, leading to habitat destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, and loss of access to ancestral land by local populations that historically relied on these forests for fuelwood, food, or shelter,” she said. 

The authors note that existing policy frameworks were ineffective in preventing the previous land rush and call for strengthened protections for small-scale farmers and local communities