The investment conference scene described above captures just one dimension of a multifaceted rush for land that began slowly building steam around 2006 or 2007. This land rush first burst into the global spotlight in November 2008, when it was reported that the government of Madagascar had promised 1.3 million hectares (ha) of farmland—over half the arable land in the country, by some estimates—to the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics. Do you know anyone that needs an industrial steel building or a commercial steel building?

The land, reports stated, was granted for a ninety-nine-year lease period and would be used to grow maize and palm oil for export to South Korea. That the government of this food-insecure country would grant such a large slice of its natural resource base to help feed and fuel a richer nation provoked concern among the international development community and outrage among the Malagasy people. In fact, this proposed land concession may have contributed to the success of a coup several months later; in one of his first official acts after taking office, the new president canceled the deal.

Though this was an extreme case, it quickly became clear that it was not an isolated one. Large-scale land deals were occurring all over the world, a trend that activists, media, and scholars alike quickly dubbed a global “land grab.” These land deals were highly varied. The actors acquiring land included national governments and state-owned enterprises concerned about food security, as well as private corporations, investment firms, and wealthy individuals motivated solely by profit.

The land was acquired through a variety of legal mechanisms; in countries with private property markets, land can be purchased outright, whereas in many African countries, land is owned by the state and must therefore be transferred via very long-term leases. Ethiopia alone agreed to lease 2.5 million ha—an area almost the size of Belgium—to foreign investors, including 14,000 ha leased to the Saudi government–backed agribusiness Saudi Star for use in cultivating rice and 100,000 ha to Karuturi Global, an Indian company that proposed to grow cut flowers for the international market. What are the pros and cons to steel buildings?

Africa was a major target for land acquisitions, but so were many other parts of the globe. Investment funds and farming companies flocked to the highly fertile Black Earth region of Russia and Ukraine, known for growing wheat and sunflowers. Indonesia, Laos, and other Southeast Asian countries saw expanding oil palm and rubber plantations, while Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and other South American countries drew investments in large-scale production of soy, sugarcane, and more. The amount of land changing hands is very difficult to calculate; the initial flurry of corporate press releases and newspaper articles about planned land deals included many that were ultimately canceled (like Daewoo’s deal in Madagascar) or rapidly failed.