A tale of loot and plunder

There is an assault underway on the natural resources of the world. The assault is spearheaded by multinational capital, which needs to consume more and more to be able to continue thriving. Capital has been on the rampage throughout history, but today it has surpassed all previous imaginable limits of resource capture and expansionism. The rationale is simple and circular–to continue generating profit, there is a need for resources.

The resource situation is most acute in the periphery where the ruling elite in post-colonial states are ever willing accomplices of profiteers from the core. Meanwhile, there is hardly a semblance of regulatory mechanisms to slow the onslaught. In Pakistan, land remains the most valuable resource, given the fact that the vast majority of citizens derive their livelihood either directly or indirectly from it. In recent years, the usurping of land by the state and its profit-making corporate cronies has reached incredible proportions, and it may well be argued that it is the increasingly visible struggle over land between the establishment and the people of the country that will have a heavy bearing on the political direction that Pakistan takes in years to come.

Compared to other countries in South Asia, including India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Pakistan has never wholly implemented a nationwide land redistribution policy. On record, there are three land reform legislations from 1958, 1973, and 1977. Unfortunately, the persistence of the nexus between the old feudal elite and the civil and military bureaucracy that developed at the early stages of the country's existence has ensured that land reform still remains a pipe dream. Urbanisation and out-migration, especially to West Asia, provided the majority rural population temporary avenues for alternative livelihoods through the 1980s. The situation since the beginning of the 1990s however, has been deteriorating rapidly.

The terms of trade for agricultural commodities have been worsening steadily for many decades now. However, the attack on rural livelihoods due to the increase in prices of agricultural inputs and reduction in subsidies and price supports is specific to the adjustment craze that was set in motion by the international financial institutions (IFIs) in the late 1970s. These phenomena have intensified over the past few years. Therefore, subsistence growers are being steadily pushed to the limit, with the adverse climatic conditions over the past couple of years only aggravating the situation.

Feudal apathy
Predictably, and in spite of the natural fragmentation of landholdings amongst traditional feudal families, land concentration has actually increased in recent years. While it is difficult to isolate the exact causes of this trend, the above-mentioned global market pressures on small and landless growers is at the root of the problem. Many subsistence growers have sold their land and migrated to urban centres or taken up contract work on someone else's land due to their inability to make ends meet.

In any case, there is now a new force encroaching, and one that official data often conveniently misses out on. The state is increasingly grabbing land, along with the state elite's own autonomous corporate entities. There is a fair bit of land in Pakistan that remains uncultivated (or under-cultivated), which in many areas is referred to as shaamilaat, or commons. Livestock rearing remains a significant source of income for many rural dwellers, as does low-cost, organic, rain-fed agriculture. In many cases, such activities take place on shaamilaat. Under the guise of "development" projects, a large amount of such land is being usurped by the state. This is done by conveniently assuming that shaamilaat land is state land. Therefore, when such land is acquired, the state does not even bother to account for the destruction of livelihood and eco-systems that takes place, let alone accommodate the losses that are inflicted on local communities. Official reports simply pontificate at length about the incredible economic growth and prosperity that will be the necessary outcome of the project. Meanwhile, a rather warped process of land allotments has been underway now for decades as part of such projects. The beneficiaries are civil and military officers, both serving and retired. Examples of this kind of rent-seeking activity are increasing noticeably, and there is little to indicate that things are about to change.

One instance of a mega water project in which land resources are being ruthlessly exploited by the state elite is the Greater Thal Canal (GTC). This canal was conceived of as a flood carrier canal to irrigate otherwise uncultivated lands in four districts of the Siraiki belt in Punjab province. As it turns out, the entire province of Sindh has erupted in protest against the GTC because it will further divert water from downstream where the water problem is already acute. In addition, residents of the Siraiki area in which the canal is being built are being dispossessed of their lands through the use of colonial-period land acquisition laws without being given any commensurate compensation. The other quite prominent element of the whole affair (and what is more or less common knowledge) is that large chunks of land in the command area that will be irrigated will be allotted to army officers.

As in many cases similar to this one, Pervez Musharraf has personally asserted that the GTC will be built, despite the fact that such a decision is clearly undemocratic and against the wishes of those who will be directly affected by the project, a constituency that includes an entire province. Meanwhile, it is the army officers who are likely to end up with a large proportion of the hundreds and thousands of acres of land in the area on which indigenous people have established age-old livelihood systems that will be destroyed and forgotten It is also worth noting that in many cases where such large mega water projects are undertaken, huge tracts of fertile land are typically destroyed by seepage and flooding, and one has to wonder if even the narrowly defined economic benefits of such projects offset the irreversible economic losses. Social cost-benefit analysis remains a distant dream.

A so-called Water Vision 2025 has been announced recently by policy makers in Pakistan, on the basis of which numerous mega water projects are being planned, designed, and constructed with the express objective of bringing uncultivated land under cultivation and thereby inducing economic growth and development. To whom this growth and development will cater is a question that is taboo in Pakistan. The army in particular is not fond of those who choose to dissent against what it regards as the supreme national interest. The real quandary will arise when there is simply no land left to acquire, or water left to irrigate the acquired lands. Eventually such a situation will come to pass and it remains a matter of speculation what new method of resource extraction will then be contrived by the ruling classes.

The "national interest" is very much tied to the "global interest" philosophy of the core countries. In Pakistan, an example of this is the plan for corporate agriculture farming. Through this initiative, the state will lease out unlimited tracts of state land to agribusiness firms to undertake large-scale capital-intensive agriculture. In this rush for hi-tech farming, there is little concern for the effect on small and landless growers, as well as the environmental impact on the land itself. It is a fact that the army has been propped up by the global financial elite over the past few years and it is only natural that reciprocity abounds in the relationship. The imperatives of global capitalism are such that undemocratic forces, such as the Pakistan army, are the most natural allies of multinational capital, with the losers being the people and their resources.

'Armed' Consultancies
The international financial institutions (IFIs) promote such mega projects, happily conceding massive cost overruns and graciously extending repayment schedules. Contracts for construction, transportation and a variety of other project-related activities are awarded to firms that suit the IFIs. Foreign consultants who charge astronomical private sector rates for their "expertise" are brought in, with the whole charade becoming so preposterous that even grievance complaints filed by the affected are dealt with by overpaid consultants from abroad without the slightest idea of local politics, history, and social norms. The capitalist food chain is thus completed.

Meanwhile, the army has become the primary player in the land-grabbing game in Pakistan. Cantonments have sprung up in all urban settlements, with most of the land for such cantonments previously catering to a much larger, often rural, population that directly derived its livelihood from the land. A perverse mentality within the army has seen the institution take over large tracts of land in what are loosely termed "border" areas, on the pretext that army installations in such areas are necessary to protect national security. Most of this land is utilised for the personal benefit of army officers rather than in the public interest. All influential groups including the civil and military bureaucracy, the feudal elite, and now the nouveau-riche industrial class, have subscribed to the state ideology which, in its essence, amounts to the doctrine of necessity. These elite alliances give the army the mandate it needs to carry on with land-grabbing activities. And the extent to which the army officers have gotten used to possession and control of land is exemplified by the flagrant use of force to suppress those who dispute the army's right to do so.

A high-profile example of the army's inability to comprehend dissent is found in its response to the movement of landless tenants on state land in Punjab, which has been going on for over three years now in the city of Okara. In this case, the vast difference in power and access of the army versus other state actors is very obvious. The conflict with regard to the Okara military farms has received a great deal of attention, even though the movement has spread far and wide beyond Okara to farms that are not controlled by the military. It is the possibility that Okara could herald recognition amongst the general public, that the army is not unaccountable, that is worrying the generals. The Director-General of the elite paramilitary Pakistan Rangers, Major General Husain Mehdi–the man who has established the "peace" in Okara–has gone on record to say quite clearly that if the army gives up the land in Okara to landless tenants, what will stop all tenants in the country from rising up against their own landlords? If nothing else, this is a message to what remains of the old feudal elite to get its act together and understand the mutual interest which binds them and the army.

In much the same way that the forces of the establishment are grabbing land, the realms of water and forest resources have also increasingly been coming under attack. As in the case of land, these resources too have been plundered over an extended period of time without heed being paid to the consequences of unbridled profiteering. If anything, the intensity of the plunder has been on the rise. In the case of forest resources, most of which are found in the mountainous North West Frontier Province (NWFP) province, the state is employing the same neo-colonial methods of extraction, as in the above-mentioned cases of takeover of land.

Shaamilat forests constitute a large proportion of total forests from which local communities derive their livelihood. Needless to say, the dense forest reserves that exist (or at least did exist) in the mountainous part of the country are also amongst Pakistan's greatest ecological treasures. Unfortunately, the engagement of local communities with the state has only resulted in the virtual re-production of colonial classifications of forests such that the rights of the majority of local people have been almost completely eroded. Even royalties due to local communities under colonial laws are not granted to them.

In the coastal areas in the south, marine resources have been pillaged to the extent that estimates indicate that up to 80 percent of the fish stock on the 1800 kilometre-long coastline has been depleted. Natural deltas and creeks have dried up, with the real impact on the environment and livelihoods of local communities only likely to become apparent after some time has passed. All of this is an outcome of the fact that water resources are being diverted upstream to suit the needs of influential people who demand more water to pander to their self-interest, and the fact that foreign corporate deep-sea trawlers are being issued fishing licenses to wave their magic wand of destruction in Pakistan's coastal waters.

All in all, it is difficult to imagine that such a situation can persist indefinitely. There is now a serious crisis brewing in terms of natural resource abuse in Pakistan. While matters such as the blatant disregard of the Bush administration for the global environment have received wide publicity, the plunder of resources in countries like Pakistan are still not being recognised as the critical issues they are. There is very little in the way of serious political action and reflection on such issues. There should be, because it is the rapidity of such resource manipulation that will likely precipitate more and more response from threatened communities. It is a fact that only resistance to profiteering at the local level can precipitate the kind of unified global response that is required in the long-run to challenge the unsustainable production-consumption cycle that is at the heart of global capitalism. One wonders meanwhile, how long before nature starts to resist in its own, unfathomable way.

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Himal Southasian