When you sit down with people who have been forcibly evicted from their land, you can feel full of despair. When you hear mothers talk about how the fence put up by land grabbers prevents them from getting to hospital, or youngsters talk about how their only option for work is to become a guard to keep out their friends and family, it can feel as if might will always triumph over right.
The scale of this pillage is truly staggering. Every six days land the size of London is bought and sold - often by people who have never even visited it, sometimes in an online click-and-buy. Some of those who take over the land will grow crops - often for biofuels rather than for food and, when for food, often for export rather than for locals. Others just put up a fence and wait for the price of the land to go up while around them people go hungry. In fact, the land bought in these unfair and harmful deals around the world could have been used to grow enough food to feed a billion people.
But things are changing - there is a real prospect that land grabbers may at last find themselves on the wrong side of history. After months of shuttle diplomacy the agenda for this year's G8 meeting in the UK has now been set, and the group is finally taking on the issue of land grabs. This is the first time land will be discussed by the G8, despite so much of the money for land grabs either coming via their countries' banks and stock exchanges. The G8 has enormous influence that should be used to secure standards which could prevent land grabs, and the UK government has the opportunity to get G8 countries to agree to put their own house in order and help prevent land grabs in the world's poorest countries.
Across the world, groups are coming together to assert that people must not be moved off their land without their consent. This movement is securing real victories amidst the suffering, with land grabs being challenged, corporations held to account, and increasing pressure on investors that is making them think again. Coalitions of local and national organisations in developing countries working with and for affected communities are the drivers of this campaign. They have found support from groups like the African Council of Churches and Pan African Parliament, and from human rights, environmental and legal organisations.
In the West, an issue which was once an obscure niche subject for academics has begun to enter the mainstream. On TV in the UK, actor Bill Nighy has been explaining land grabs to Philip Schofield on morning TV. Scotland's biggest tabloid has been comparing land grabs to the Highland Clearances. Activists who symbolically grabbed landmarks were the top story on the TV news in Spain and featured in newspapers across Italy.
The IF campaign of over 150 charities, faith and community groups has united in a call for action to stop land grabs and for the World Bank to set an example by "freezing lending involving large-scale land acquisitions for six months to provide the space for strengthening safeguards". And now Coldplay have organised for a crowd-sourced music video of their classic In my place involving their fans across the world in learning about and speaking out against land grabs. Rare is the politician or company spokesperson who will be comfortable being on the receiving end of that kind of popular pressure.
The UN has now recognised the land grabs problem, and its Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has declared it a "wild west". EU officials have admitted that their subsidies for biofuels created a land rush. The World Bank's own financing arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) has acknowledged that it has made mistakes.
Could 2013 mark a turnaround? Could this be the start of a process of tightening the rules and empowering communities to challenge those attempting to take the land from under their feet? This is no short term, easy, win. But maybe, just maybe, we're approaching a tipping point now, and we'll start to see, as Martin Luther King said, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.Suggest a correction