A startling article in the New York Times May 8 noted that Honduras in late 2010 passed a constitutional amendment drawn up by the administration of President Porfirio Lobo that allows the creation of a separately ruled “Special Development Region” within the country—where the national state would have limited, if any, authority. The article, entitled “Who Wants to Buy Honduras?,” portrays a vision for privately run islands of order and security amid the squalor and violence of the impecunious Central American country. This was apparently the brainchild of a young Lobo aide, Octavio Rubén Sánchez Barrientos, who was taken with the ideas of US economist Paul Romer, theorist of “economic zones founded on the land of poor countries but governed with the legal and political system of, often, rich ones.”
Citing accounts in the Honduran press, the Honduras Culture and Politics blog notes that the new measure gives “the government the right to expropriate any contiguous region of land for the use of ‘Special Administrative Regions’ which will be owned in full by the government, but have their own fully autonomous court system, not answerable to the Supreme Court.”
The Charter Cities blog, devoted to Romer’s concept, feels the need to weigh in on the Times story, which appeared in reporter Adam Davidson‘s “It’s the Economy” column:
Q: Is the Honduran government putting land in the Special Development Region up for sale to foreigners?
A: No. Though attention-grabbing, the headline that the editors chose for Adam’s piece—”Who wants to buy Honduras?”—in no way reflects the actual specifics of the Honduran proposal for a Special Development Region (known locally as la RED). If and when the Honduran Congress approves a physical boundary for the RED, the responsibility for managing the land within it will be given to an autonomous RED government. The land itself will remain part of sovereign Honduran territory, albeit under the different system of rules in the RED. In managing the land, the RED government will lease parcels to private developers, all of whom will be subject to the authority of the independent RED government. What the Hondurans envision is a fiscal arrangement in which land leases help to finance the provision of public goods in the RED, much as they do in Singapore or Hong Kong.
But the “concept” page on the Charter Cities website makes clear the agenda:
The Role for Rules
In too many places, weak or outdated rules hold people back. Some rules limit who can sell power, so electricity is expensive. Others fail to contain crime. Others make it difficult to start a business or open a plant. Because of this, firms build new factories not in places where the need for work is highest, but in places where electricity is inexpensive, people and property are safe, and doing business is relatively easy. The few workers who manage to migrate from places with inefficient rules to places with better rules end up earning wages that are many times higher than what they can earn in the places they leave behind.
The world’s poor know that better rules prevail elsewhere. Gallup reports that 630 million people would like to move permanently to another country. If they could, more would surely follow, but they cannot because voters in the countries where they want to go, the countries with the best rules, will not let them in.
The world needn’t choose between forcing migration on countries that do not want it and shutting out those who want to escape inefficient rules. Charter cities offer a third option. By copying rules that work, new cities can quickly give millions of people the chance to move to places that start with better rules.
Of course, the law is too burdensome (“outdated”) for corporations, yet too “weak” when it comes to “containing [street] crime.” Funny, New York City’s exorbitant electricity rates haven’t gone down since the Con Ed monopoly was broken up and deregulation instated more than 15 years ago. And are immigrants trying to get into the United States because they admire our “rules”—the very “rules” which in many states deny them basic rights? Or are they coming here because corporate land-grabbing and free-trade (“neoliberal”) economics have made life untenable in their own countries?
Dawn Paley on Upside Down World notes a report plugging the Charter Cities concept by Romer and fellow NYU urbanization academic Brandon Fuller for Canada’s Macdonald Laurier Institute. The report sees a role for security forces from foreign countries in policing the REDs:
The RCMP, perhaps in partnership with another respected policing authority such as the Carabineros de Chile, could greatly enhance security and quality of life in the RED by establishing a presence in the zone—training police officers and holding officers accountable for modern standards of service and conduct in policing.
Paley can’t resist adding: “Yea, you read that right. Sorry if you just lost your lunch. The idea here is to bring in two national police forces whose origins are in the decimation and repression of Indigenous peoples and put them to work in a new colony.” We recently noted Carabineros’ repression of indigenous peoples in Chile (and, less recently, the RCMP’s essentially similar if less bloody actions in Mohawk country). This has particularly ominous implications in light of the land expropriations seen in the RED proposal.
Acknowledging the growing vogue for neocolonialism even while attempting to downplay it, Foreign Policy blog on June 5 thusly answered a reader’s question, “Why don’t countries buy territory like they used to?”:
The closest thing that happens like this today are deals like China’s state-run Heilongjiang Beidahuang Nongken Group’s purchase of 800,000 acres of Argentina to grow crops for export to China. Or South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics’ lease of 3.2 million acres of farmland in Madagascar, half the island’s arable land. Neither were quite the Louisiana Purchase and no borders have technically been redrawn, but these megadeals raised controversial questions about national sovereignty in the host countries. (Madagascar’s new leaders backed out of the Daewoo deal in 2009.)
On May 11, GRAIN, an NGO “that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems,” responded to a UN statement on the fast-growing phenomenon of corporate “land-grabbing” in the developing world. Civil society groups issued a “Declaration of Buenos Aries” denouncing the findings of a study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on land-grabbing in Latin America, “Dynamics of the Land Market in Latin America and the Caribbean,” writes GRAIN:
FAO’s claim…that “the land grabbing phenomenon is in its early stages and only found in two large countries: Argentina and Brazil” set off alarm bells for conference participants and provoked a highly critical analysis of the FAO’s position…
Taking control of large extents of land, territories and related rights is a problem regardless of whether we are talking about Beidahuang Group (a state enterprise of the Heioljiang Province of China), Hassad Food (formed by the Qatari government), a company like CalyxAgro (a subsidiary of the French group Louis Dreyfus Commodities) or Adecoagro (directed by the Hungarian-American investor George Soros).
Global agribusiness’ brutal expansion in Latin America is one of the main factors driving land grabbing in the region. Other important causes include mining in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala, as well as the mega hydroelectric projects and the large tourism businesses that usurp common land. It is also important to note that false solutions to Climate Change such as those represented by REDD+ and the planting of monocultures for biomass production for energy purposes are further conducive factors to land grabbing in Latin America.
We have already noted land-grabbing under the UN’s Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) mechanism. RED and REDD seem to be urban and backcountry exponents of the same phenomenon. China getting in on the neocolonial act (in Argentina, where expansion of the soy economy has seen much oppression and unrest) is perversely ironic—resentment of the “international settlements” in Shanghai and other Chinese cities, and “extraterritoriality” (the principle that foreign nationals on Chinese soil were not subject to Chinese law), were instrumental in the rise of China’s revolutionary movement in the first half of the 20th century.