The Climate Crisis and the Future of the Beef Industry – Rebuilding the U.S. cattle herd is imperative for labor standards, climate stability and a just transition for meat worker

Cargill Plant’s Last Day in Plainview, TX – Photo courtesy of Criselda Avila, posted by NPR

Guest Editorial by Dennis Olson, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)

(published online May 16, 2022)

At its peak, Cargill’s beef plant in Plainview, Texas employed 2000 workers with good paying union jobs and generous benefits, collectively bargained with the help of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 540. During the summer of 2011, Texas ranchers became increasingly desperate as drought scorched their pastures and turned their watering ponds to dust. Ranchers reluctantly began to sell off their cattle, including their valuable female breeding heifers essential for future herd rebuilding. By the end of 2011, Texas was in the grip of its worst drought in recorded history. And it was about to get worse—both for the Texas ranchers, and for the Cargill meatpacking workers in Plainview.

By 2012 the drought had deepened and expanded beyond the Southern Great Plains to the rest of North America. By the time rains finally arrived in 2013, the Texas cattle herd had shrunk by about 1.2 million head, or about quarter of its former size of five million in 2010.[1] By 2014, as the drought took effect throughout the continent, the herd had dwindled to its lowest level since 1941.

Since its passage in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had enabled beefpacking companies to acquire feedlots in Canada and Mexico, and to ship those Canadian and Mexican cattle tariff-free over the borders, to their U.S. plants

Drought had already extended from Texas into northern Mexico in 2011. Mexican ranchers, like their U.S. counterparts, had also sold their cattle and sent them north to slaughter in U.S. plants like Cargill-Plainview, keeping them open longer. But those Mexican cattle eventually ran out too, and the workers at the Plainview plant had no more cattle left to harvest. In early 2013, Cargill notified its workers that it would close the plant. The workers were out of a job; and it would be challenging to find new ones in the now parched rural economy of the Texas panhandle.

Although NAFTA had provided the Plainview plant with a short-lived but ultimately futile lifeline, for nearly two decades the agreement had been undermining the resilience of the beef supply chain. NAFTA had cleared the way for the global meatpackers like Cargill to acquire feedlots anywhere in North America and ship cattle across borders to their U.S. packing plants.  When U.S. domestic cattle supplies got low enough so that demand would normally push prices up to kickstart herd rebuilding, the meatpacking companies continued to suppress prices through shipping from feedlots to processing plants across the borders. This intentional price suppression undermined domestic demand, artificially suppressed U.S. cattle prices and removed any economic incentive for ranchers to hold back breeding cows for herd rebuilding. The meat companies used NAFTA to break the historical cattle cycle.

In the case of the Cargill-Plainview plant, UFCW successfully petitioned the Department of Labor under the Trade Adjustment Act (TAA) to grant extended unemployment and vocational training funds to those workers who were laid off to help them transition to new jobs. In its petition, UFCW proved that beef imports “contributed importantly” to the plant shutdown, which was the test that had to be met to release the worker assistance funds.[2] One pillar of a Just Transition should be to expand the TAA to assist workers who lose their jobs due to climate shocks, not just trade disruptions.

After NAFTA broke the cattle cycle, the herd never again recovered to its pre-NAFTA levels. Today, the question remains whether the herd will ever recover, or simply continue its decades long decline to oblivion under NAFTA. The rebuilding of the cattle herd is crucial not only to the ranchers who raise the cattle, but also to the workers who process them. And to the planet.

The questions regarding how much and what kind of beef we should produce is pivotal to the success or failure of any strategies around a Fair and Just Transition toward effective climate mitigation. Yes, cows have the biggest carbon footprint because of the methane they emit, but we still need them and other ruminants back out on sustainable pasture rotations, improving soil health and fixing carbon. Such a migration of cows from industrial “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) to sustainable pastures would break up fossil-fuel monocultures, making the countryside more resilient in the face of increasingly climate volatility including severe droughts and floods, wildfires and more deadly pandemics.

We must develop and implement policies that reverse current, unsustainable neoliberal market deregulation that has unleashed the overproduction of fossil-fuel feedgrains, driving crop prices far below the cost of production. A Tufts University study[3] found that the indirect below-cost feed subsidy caused by the market deregulation of feedgrains in the 1996 Farm Bill siphoned $35 billion out of our rural economies and into the coffers of global meat packers and dairy processors. This cheap feed policy is the hidden driver of the otherwise inexplicable and relentless expansion of industrial CAFOs that everyone seems to dislike but that no one can seem to curtail.

We need supply management with strategic grain reserves to create price floors in grain markets—not only to give farmers a fair minimum price that covers their real cost of production but also to take away that $35 billion cheap feed subsidy from the industrial livestock complex by making them pay the real cost of production in the market. Such a strategic grain reserve should also have a price ceiling that triggers the release of those reserves back out onto the market whenever prices rise too high, causing hunger, and suppressing demand for meat and shuttering meatpacking plants. Supply management is one of our most effective tools for avoiding the worst impacts of global warming.

Supply management can curtail the overproduction of below-cost feed grains grown with the assistance of fossil-fuel based fertilizers that subsidizes the unsustainable overproduction of industrial meat.

Stronger antitrust laws and trade reform must curtail the ability of the global meat cartels to manipulate cattle prices and cheat ranchers and prevent the race to the bottom for the lowest labor standards. The fight back has begun. Workers have recently won a multimillion-dollar legal settlement against meatpacking companies for colluding to suppress wages.[4] Consumers have won similar settlements,[5] and rancher antitrust complaints are pending.[6]

Public procurement reform would allocate preferences to suppliers who respect workers’ rights to organize a union; who pay farmers and ranchers a fair price and redress historical racial discrimination; and who invest in local economies rather than extract wealth from them. Such preferences should also include favoring worker- and farmer-owned cooperatives with union contracts. These farmers and workers will spend money on Main Street, not Wall Street. And such preferences should exclude the bad actors who egregiously violate labor, antitrust and environmental laws, from bidding on public contracts.

Working together, we can succeed in forging policies to incentivize herd rebuilding.

Removing the massive indirect feed subsidies to industrial meat production through supply management of grains would reduce the carbon footprint of beef by leveling the playing field for pasture-based ruminants versus CAFO meat production, allowing cows to revert to their natural ecological role of rebuilding soil health and fixing carbon. And requiring the industrial meatpackers to pay the real cost of production for feedgrains would reduce the amount of fossil-fuel feedgrains fed to cattle, further reducing beef’s carbon footprint.

Finally, eliminating the cheap feed subsidy would break up the fossil-fuel monoculture cropping that is hemorrhaging toxins to point of creating a massive dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico. Moving cattle out of massive industrial CAFOs and back onto sustainable pasture rotations would improve soil health and fix carbon, making the countryside more resilient in the face of ever more severe droughts, intense floods and devastating wildfires. By implementing these policies, and facilitating herd rebuilding, we can prevent US and global beef demand from being reliant on deforestation, particularly the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

More cows on more grass can become a guiding principle by which to measure our success towards a fairer and more just climate transition.

Endnotes:

[1] Texas cattle herd hits 8-year high; will prices suffer? Austin American-Statesman, March 23, 2019: https://www.statesman.com/story/business/agricultural/2019/03/22/texas-cattle-herd-hits-8-year-high-will-prices-suffer/5635084007/

[2] U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration; TAA Decision 85160; TA-W-85,160 CARGILL MEAT SOLUTIONS CORPORATION A SUBSIDIARY OF CARGILL, INCORPORATED PLAINVIEW, TEXAS; April 3, 2014.

[3] Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, Policy Brief No. 07-03 Dec. 2007 Feeding at the Trough Industrial Livestock Firms Saved $35 billion From Low Feed Prices; By Elanor Starmer and Timothy A. WiseGDAE https://sites.tufts.edu/gdae/files/2020/03/PB07-03FeedingAtTroughDec07.pdf

[4] Pilgrim’s Pride reaches $29M deal in wage-fixing case; Published Sept. 4, 2019; Updated July 8, 2021; Food Dive website accessed April 11, 2022; https://www.fooddive.com/news/pilgrims-pride-reaches-29m-deal-in-wage-fixing-case/562165/

[5] Eli Hoff, Investigate Midwest; July 29, 2021; https://investigatemidwest.org/2021/07/29/is-this-legal-why-an-obscure-data-service-has-been-sued-nearly-100-times-for-facilitating-anti-competitive-behavior/

[6] R-CALF USA and Other Plaintiffs’ Case Proceeds to Discovery; R-CALF USA Press Release, September 14, 2021 accessed on R-CALF USA website, April 11, 2022; https://www.r-calfusa.com/minnesota-federal-court-denies-packers-motion-to-dismiss-cattle-antitrust-cases/

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WTO Meeting Presents Opportunity to Challenge Corporate Control Over Food Supply

By Anthony Pahnke, Vice President of Family Farm Defenders, and Assistant Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University in CA.

Originally published by TruthOut, June. 12, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that our concentrated global food system is prone to breakdown and riddled with exploitation.

Look no further than to the fruit and vegetable farmers in Europe and United States who destroyed perfectly good produce because corporate food processors lacked the resiliency to adapt to changing consumption demands. The 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S., at the same time, risked their lives for poverty-level wages without personal protective equipment.

Meanwhile, just four corporations, globally, control 75 percent of the world’s grain trade, and 60 percent of our seeds. In the U.S., four firms dominate 75 percent of the fertilizer supply and 85 percent of beef processing.

Such concentration takes freedom from farmers, taking from them the ability to negotiate the prices of what they sell and the inputs, such as feed and seed, that they purchase. Meanwhile, workers lack critical safety protections, for instance, safeguards against chemical or pesticide exposure, as they labor for subsistence-level wages.

This is the food and farm system that the World Trade Organization (WTO) played a central role in creating. The WTO, which emerged out of the Uruguay Round of negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1994, has become synonymous with promoting “free trade,” namely, in calling on states to privatize public enterprises, end price and wage supports, and lift import tariffs not only in agriculture but also in the pharmaceutical, automobile and textile industries.

What to do with our crisis-prone food system will be one of the topics broached at the upcoming Ministerial Conference of the WTO that will take place from June 12 to 15 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Food, farm and peasant movements, specifically those in the international coalition, La Via Campesina (LVC), plan to protest the meeting to denounce such free trade policies and demand change.

This is not the first time that LVC members have challenged the WTO. Perhaps the most recognized is Lee Kyung Hae, a Korean farmer who died by suicide at the organization’s meeting in Cancún, Mexico, in 2003, to call attention to how WTO prescriptions drove farmers into poverty.

Such conditions of economic depression persist globally: About thirty Indian farmers take their own lives every day over their inability to pay loans and purchase inputs. Desperation among U.S. farmers, similarly, has led them to have one of the highest suicide rates among all professions.

The WTO’s role in creating these dynamics is showcased in Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), which entered into force in 1995. The AoA put agriculture into an economic bind, categorizing farm system policies globally into three boxes — amber, blue, and green.

Amber box policies, specifically, are prohibited under the AoA for being “market distorting.” Such initiatives include the government purchase of commodities to guarantee a certain income. Import tariffs also fall into this box. Blue box policies, which are permitted by the agreement, also affect incomes. In the U.S., direct payments to farmers from the government are one example. Blue box policies are allowed because they are limited in terms of amount. The last kind of policies — those in the green box — are also allowed. These include funds dedicated to research and development or environmental conservation.

As a treaty, the AoA has enforcement mechanisms: Through the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism (DSM), states that feel another country has unfairly restrained trade may file a grievance and seek retribution.

One well-known case is the U.S.’ successful effort to have Mexico remove its tariffs on high-fructose corn syrup, resulting in a rise of obesity south of the border. Similarly, Canadian dairy farmers were harmed as its government was forced by the WTO — under the pressure of powerful corporate dairy interests from the U.S. — to remove export supports and allow foreign firms access to domestic markets. Another example is when Brazil claimed that its cotton industry was adversely affected by U.S. subsidies. Years of negotiations resulted in a victory for the Latin American country, with the U.S. agreeing to pay $300 million to Brazilian producers.

The WTO’s free trade promotion, while increasing imports and exports, has not helped small-scale producers. According to Public Citizen, since the mid-1990s when the WTO, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, over 231,000 family farms went under as they could not compete with increases in price volatility and deregulation. From 1995 to 2017, this was approximately 11 percent of all farms in the U.S.

Still, wealthy countries disproportionately benefit under these global rules. The U.S., for instance, can rescue its farmers with ease in the aftermath of disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic; stimulus payments accounted for 40 percent of farmers’ total income in 2020. Countries with limited resources don’t have the means to pay farmers when crisis hits, or to pay fines in case of violating WTO dictates.

Additionally, in the name of free trade, agribusiness companies often export or dump food into foreign markets at prices that undercut domestic producers. This drives environmentally destructive overproduction in wealthy countries like the U.S., while forcing farmers out of business abroad.

Despite these deeply entrenched problems, this WTO meeting could be different, as protesters’ demands for significant food and farm system reform are taking on increased urgency.

Part of the reason why movements have seized upon this opportunity to call for change is that the WTO has been weakened in recent years; the DSM has lacked personnel since former President Donald Trump, as part of his China trade war, hampered the WTO by not appointing judges to hear grievances.

There’s also the fact that negotiations, particularly concerning further liberalizing agriculture, have been stalled since 2001, as economically developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa have failed to find common ground with the U.S. and Europe.

In this context, potential alternatives to the WTO vision of agriculture, as well as its DSM enforcement mechanism, include the demand for parity – the New Deal-era set of policies that sought to place farmers’ incomes on par with what workers in urban areas receive. In clear defiance to the WTO and its boxes, organizations such as the National Family Farm Coalition see parity policies as a means to curtail corporate consolidation and protect the environment. Central to this demand is for governments to provide a space for farmers, workers and processors to negotiate food production and distribution in long-term, sustainable ways.

Additionally, LVC promotes agroecology — a labor-intensive, chemical-free way of growing food that works with nature instead of trying to dominate it. To make this form of farming practicable, governments around the world will have to enact land redistribution policies, as well as significant income supports to keep new farmers in the profession.

With the WTO weakened, now is a propitious time to denounce free trade and demand food and farm system change. More than 15 years ago, Lee Kyung Hae gave his life in this struggle. Inspired by his sacrifice, farmers and activists will convene in Geneva, keeping hope alive for building a more just, equitable and sustainable way of practicing agriculture.

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Family Farmers Stand in Solidarity with Striking Workers

For Immediate Release – May, 2022

Contact: Zena McFadden (608) 475 1534 and/or Joel Greeno (608) 462 3560

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack meets with striking UAW Local 450 workers at the John Deere Des Moines Works, in Ankeny, IA

From the successful strikes at Starbucks shops, to the work stoppage at the farm implement dealer, CNH Industrial, the labor movement is finding new life.  Workers’ demands are many, from receiving a living wage, to improved work conditions.  While the problems of family farmers may seem different from workers, the reality is that they have much in common.   For this reason, our membership in Family Farm Defenders stands in solidarity with the many workers who are at the picket lines.  

Consider pay.  Rising inflation and gas prices force working people into already difficult financial situations.  Student loans make matters worse for millions, keeping young people from buying homes and cars.  Workers, from truck drivers to barristas, struggle to make ends meet.  

While workers see their wages fall relative to that of corporate CEOs, farmers see declining prices for what they sell.  This is why family farmers call for parity.  Parity pricing, which we saw emerge during the Great Depression as a set of policies to put what farmers make on par with what urban workers were paid, would keep farmers on the land.  

There’s also problems with work conditions.  Workers seek more stable work days, particularly in terms of hours.  There’s also the need for bathroom breaks – a basic need that Amazon workers sought.  Basically, workers lack control over the places where they earn their livelihoods.  

Farmers, too, want to improve where they work.  First, there is the demand for right to repair legislation.  Now, corporations such as John Deere, place unnecessary restrictions on how farmers repair their machinery.  If something breaks down, then they must call in a technician.  Meanwhile, fewer and fewer corporations control more and more parts of the food system, from seeds to meat processing facilities.  As a result, farmers lose control over what they grow.

Farmers and workers have much in common.  Family Farm Defenders stands in solidarity with workers who are demanding basic improvements in their workplaces and lives.  Let’s hope that the wave of strikes continues, with more actions waking us up to the need to take our economy back.

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The US Forces Its Flawed Food System on the World

We ignore the fact that efforts, like AGRA, have failed and we refuse to support and fund Agroecological solutions that will work.

By Jim Goodman, FFD board member and retired WI dairy farmer

Originally published by Common Dreams, April 22, 2022

Ukraine – the Bread Basket of Europe

Even before the war in Ukraine, the sanctions on Russia, and the shipping blockade of the Black Sea, farmers across the US were getting ready for higher prices on seed, fertilizer, and crop chemicals. All winter, major farm media was warning farmers to book supplies early as prices would be high and supplies would be short. The war in Ukraine has only amped up the concern among farmers, input suppliers, and those who erroneously proclaim that we, the US, must feed the world.

Here in the US, farmers are told they can and must feed the world by growing more corn, more soy, and more livestock in confinement, even if that is not what the world wants or can afford to eat.

The farm media offers suggestions as to how farmers, despite relatively higher crop prices, might deal with the even steeper increase in input costs. Use less, get your old tillage equipment out or, heaven forbid, consider manually pulling weeds like farmers used to do—of course, years ago, farmers didn’t run thousands of acres.

While oil companies used the sanctions on Russian oil to steeply ramp up their prices, even though Russian oil continues to flow almost without interruption, corporate agribusiness also has a convenient smokescreen to ramp up input prices even further—nothing short of blatant corporate profiteering.

Despite the war, Ukrainian farmers continue to plant and shift their production to feed Ukrainians locally. But, like Ukraine, farmers all over the world cannot farm if they are under fire, so, acreage planted and tons harvested in 2022 will be down significantly from years past. With grain and fertilizer tied up by Russian blockades of Black sea terminals, severe drought and flooding, and aftereffects of the COVID pandemic, food prices will continue to climb as the consolidated global agricultural system is faced with problems they are unable to deal with.

Ignoring its obvious faults and clear failures, the industrial food system is touted as the only way forward. Our consolidated food system is immensely profitable for the multinationals that supply the inputs and for those that buy, process and distribute the crops and livestock into the global supply chain. For the farmers, not so much. They buy at retail, sell at wholesale, all while competing against each other in a rigged marketplace. Here in the US, farmers are told they can and must feed the world by growing more corn, more soy, and more livestock in confinement, even if that is not what the world wants or can afford to eat.

Industrial agriculture requires ever larger and more expensive equipment, larger farms, more fragile land put into production and it will continue the trend of depopulating rural America as small farms, rural communities, and local food systems are destroyed by corporate big ag.

And what of farmers in the rest of the world? In the Global South the situation is ever more dire and more unfair. Farmers are pressured by governments, the World Bank, and philanthropists like Bill Gates to follow the industrial model of the US, nevermind its failures, nevermind its cost.

Efforts like the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA), despite billions of dollars spent and promises to double food production and increase farmer income, have proven to be a failure. Africa does not have better access to food, the farmers are poorer and are being driven off their land, victims of technology, the cost of inputs they cannot afford, and land grabs by foreign governments and corporations. Perhaps if African countries were not at the mercy of international lending institutions and their farmers the victims of climate change and agri-colonialism, they might feed themselves?

There will always be food for those with money, energy for those with money, needed vaccines for those with money— the multi-national corporations will see to that, even as they continue to extract profit from countries least able to afford it. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres likened the ongoing and increasing crisis to “a Sword of Damocles now hanging over the global economy—especially the developing world”.

The failures of the system in the US are easily seen—fragility of the supply chain, the emergence of herbicide-resistant “super weeds,” failure of the “promise” of genetically modified crops, loss of farms, unrestrained water use and pollution, staggering farm debt, and climate change, driven in part by the agricultural system itself.

We don’t know who really said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” but they had a point. We have a high-tech industrial food system that is in crisis and has over and over shown its flaws and failures, yet we carry on in denial. We throw good money after bad, trying to push the same failing systems on Africa and countries across the Global South. We ignore the fact that efforts, like AGRA, have failed and we refuse to support and fund Agroecological solutions that will work.

Crisis should drive efforts for change. Why do we insist on more of the same?

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Don’t be Fooled Wisconsin by TIAA’s Greenwashing!

Farmers, Students, Teachers, and Unions Deliver a “Thank You” Cake to UW-Madison Chancellor, Rebecca Blank, Asking Her as a Board Member of TIAA to No Longer Allow the Global Pension Fund’s Investment in Land Grabbing, Fossil Fuels, and Climate Injustice!

For Immediate Release – 3/30/2022

Info? Contact: John E. Peck, Exec. Dir., Family Farm Defenders #608-260-0900

Fri. April 1st, 3:00 pm UW-Madison’s Bascom Hall (500 Lincoln Dr.)

Delicious carrot cake with cream cheese frosting delivered to UW Chancellor, Rebecca Blank – but, alas, she was not there, so her staff had to enjoy this in her absence – hopefully, they saved a slice for her…

Climate activists, union members, UW students, and WI farmers gathered on April Fool’s Day outside UW-Madison’s Bascom Hall to deliver a “thank you” cake to UW-Madison, Chancellor, Rebecca Blank, calling on TIAA – the trillion dollar global pension fund where she serves on the board of governors – to divest from land grabbing, fossil fuels, and climate injustice. Concerned citizens are also urged to call/email the Chancellor Blank on Fri. April 1st: #608-262-9946 chancellor@wisc.edu

Similar coordinated weeklong actions will be happening at colleges and universities across the U.S. as students, staff, faculty, and retirees become increasingly upset that their institutions and pensions have been misappropriated to bankroll irresponsible practices without their permission. A petition with 20,000+ signatures is being delivered to TIAA headquarters in New York City on Fri. Other actions will be happening at Claremont College, CA; Cornell Univ., NY; and Univ. of Pittsburgh, PA. In WI, this action is part of a larger March Forth to Earth Day series of events coordinated by Building Unity.

Besides being the manager of many WI public employee pension funds, TIAA has also been given charge of the state’s $4+ billion Eduvest fund for future college students – meaning that many young people are now unwittingly implicated in practices that drive family farmers off the land, destroy tropical forests, perpetuate dependence upon fossil fuels, and aggravate climate chaos.

“When I found out that my own retirement money as a part-time college professor was being used by TIAA to gobble up 50,000 acres in Mississippi, making it harder for black farmers to survive there, and also being used for agribusiness deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon, threatening the livelihood of indigenous peoples, I must admit I was pretty upset,” noted John E. Peck with Family Farm Defenders, a UW-Madison graduate and one of the cake delivers. “We hope that as Chancellor Blank and her staff enjoy this delicious carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, that they will also reflect upon the Wisconsin Idea and their own leadership role as public servants in averting the demise of our planet.”

Way back in Oct. 2017 the WI American Federation of Teachers (AFT) passed a resolution calling upon TIAA to “Refrain from further investment and begin a process of divestment from land grabs that are known to have displaced family farmers, triggered deforestation, and aggravated climate change.” A similar resolution was passed by the UW-Madison Faculty Senate in April 2019, calling for greater transparency and accountability from TIAA for its investment decisions leading to land grabbing and forest destruction. In May 2021, TIAA announced that it would take action on climate change, with a plan to achieve “Net Zero” emissions by 2050. However, over 100 organizations wrote a letter to TIAA in September 2021, calling their plan “too little, too late.”

For more info, visit: Stop Land Grabs Campaign: https://www.stoplandgrabs.org/en-us/ TIAA Divest: https://tiaa-divest.org/ Family Farm Defenders: https://familyfarmers.org/?page_id=1388 Building Unity: https://buildingunitywisconsin.org/

Uprooted and Rising has also produced a great story map about the land grabbing issue, check it out here: https://www.uprootedandrising.org/slg

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