Global Land Grab

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This article is part of the Food Rights Network, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. Find out more here.

The Global Land Grab is the "global rush to buy up or lease farmlands abroad as a strategy to secure basic food supplies or simply for profit."[1] According to the International Land Coalition, land grabbing is defined as "acquisitions or concessions that are one or more of the following: (i) In violation of human rights, particularly the equal rights of women; (ii) not based on Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the affected land-users; (iii) not based on a thorough assessment, or are in disregard of social, economic and environmental impacts, including the way they are gendered; (iv) not based on transparent contracts that specify clear and binding commitments about activities, employment and benefits sharing, and; (v) not based on effective democratic planning, independent oversight and meaningful participation."[2] As of November 2011, the area involved in 2,042 reported large scale land deals was 203.4 million hectares, or an area eight times the size of the United Kingdom. Of these, 1,155 land deals covering 70.9 million hectares had been "cross-referenced" to verify their validity.[3]

"Across Africa and the developing world, a new global land rush is gobbling up large expanses of arable land. Despite their ageless traditions, stunned villagers are discovering that African governments typically own their land and have been leasing it, often at bargain prices, to private investors and foreign governments for decades to come.
"Organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming to places without it.
"But others condemn the deals as neocolonial land grabs that destroy villages, uproot tens of thousands of farmers and create a volatile mass of landless poor. Making matters worse, they contend, much of the food is bound for wealthier nations."[4]

Land grabs occur for food security reasons and for financial returns. In both cases, the private sector is in control, even though in land grabs for food security, government policy often plays a role. According to the World Bank, 70% of land grabs occur in Africa.[5] However, a later report, by the International Land Coalition found that, while Africa was still the site of most land grabs, it only accounted for 46% of reported deals.

As of 2011, the purpose for land grabs was as follows (measured by land area): biofuels 40%; food crop production 25%; other non-food crop production 5%; livestock production 3%. "Farm production therefore accounts for 73% of cross-referenced acquisitions, while forestry and carbon sequestration, mineral extraction, industry, and tourism account for a combined 27% of land acquired."[6]

The 2008 Food Crisis and Its Impact

From a 2008 report by GRAIN:

"Today’s food and financial crises have, in tandem, triggered a new global land grab. On the one hand, “food insecure” governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore food production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, see investment in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue. As a result, fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated."[7]

In the same 2008 report, GRAIN distinguished recent land grabs from historic examples of landgrabbing, saying:

"The two big global crises that have erupted over the last 15 months – the world food crisis and the broader financial crisis that the food crisis has been part of – are together spawning a new and disturbing trend towards buying up land for outsourced food production. There are two parallel agendas driving two kinds of land grabbers [food security and financial returns]. But while their starting points may differ, the tracks eventually converge."

Land Grabs for Food Security

When grain prices reached record highs in 2008, countries reliant on imported food faced crises.

"A number of countries which rely on food imports and are worried about tightening markets, while they do have cash to throw around, are seeking to outsource their domestic food production by gaining control of farms in other countries. They see this as an innovative long-term strategy to feed their people at a good price and with far greater security than hitherto. Saudi Arabia, Japan, China, India, Korea, Libya and Egypt all fall into this basket...Convinced that farming opportunities are limited and the market can’t be relied upon, “food insecure” governments are shopping for land elsewhere to produce their own food. At the other end, those governments being courted for the use of their countries’ farmland are generally welcoming these offers of fresh foreign investment."[7]

Land Grabbing by China

Although China is "remarkably self-sufficient in food," it is home to a huge population with agricultural lands disappearing due to industrialization. Additionally, "its water supplies are under serious stress." Also, "with more than US$1.8 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, China has deep pockets from which to invest in its own food security abroad."[7]

According to GRAIN in 2008:

"Through China’s new geopolitical diplomacy, and the government’s aggressive “Go Abroad” outward investment strategy, some 30 agricultural cooperation deals have been sealed in recent years to give Chinese firms access to “friendly country” farmland in exchange for Chinese technologies, training and infrastructure development funds. This is happening not only in Asia but all over Africa as well, through a range of highly diverse and complex projects. From Kazakhstan to Queensland, and from Mozambique to the Philippines, a steady and familiar process is under way, with Chinese companies leasing or buying up land, setting up large farms, flying in farmers, scientists and extension workers, and getting down to the work of crop production. Most of China’s offshore farming is dedicated to the cultivation of rice, soya beans and maize, along with biofuel crops like sugar cane, cassava or sorghum. The rice produced abroad invariably means hybrid rice, grown from imported Chinese seeds, and Chinese farmers and scientists are enthusiastically teaching Africans and others to grow rice “the Chinese way”."[7]

In 2008, China's Ministry of Agriculture drew up policies "to encourage domestic companies to rent or buy land abroad for farming, especially for planting soy bean... The MOA had identified five regions, including Central Asia, Russia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, for five major Chinese state-owned farming companies to invest in."[8] China is looking for locations in countries with good relations with China that are politically stable and rich in resources. The government encourages large, well-funded, experienced countries with "a pool of talent" to invest abroad.[8]

China's main concern are soybeans, as it is the world's largest importer of soybeans. As of 2008, China would need an extra 13.3 million hectares to be self-sufficient in soybeans, and yet the country is losing land due to urbanization and climate change.[8]

Land Grabbing by the Gulf States

Another major group of players are the Gulf States: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As desert nations, these countries lack arable land for agriculture but possess lots of oil and - as a result - money.

"The current food crisis has hit the Gulf States exceptionally hard. Because they depend on food from abroad (especially from Europe) and their currencies are pegged to the US dollar (except for Kuwait, but only since last year), the simultaneous rise in food prices on the world market and the fall in the US dollar have meant that they have imported a lot of “extra inflation”. Their food import bill has ballooned in the last five years from US$8bn to US$20bn. And since their populations are largely made up of low-wage migrant workers who build their cities and staff their hospitals, it is absolutely necessary for the Gulf’s political dynasties that they provide food at reasonable prices."[7]

In order to ensure a future food suppply, Saudi Arabia, facing water shortages, decided to stop producing their staple, wheat, domestically by 2016. Instead, they will produce it elsewhere and ship it to Saudi Arabia "provided that the whole process was firmly under their own control."[7]

The United Arab Emirates faces a different situation, as 80% of its population are migrant workers, mostly Asians who prefer rice as a staple.

"Under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), [the UAE] banded together with Bahrain and the other Gulf nations to formulate a collective strategy of outsourcing food production. Their idea is to secure deals, particularly in sister Islamic countries, by which they will supply capital and oil contracts in exchange for guarantees that their corporations will have access to farmland and be able to export the produce back home. The most heavily targeted states are, by far, Sudan and Pakistan, followed by quite a number in south-east Asia (Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam), Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uganda, Ukraine, Georgia, Brazil … the list goes on."[7]

The Gulf States' long term strategy involves initial involvement by governments to "prime the pump" (i.e. "organising the deals and working out specific bilateral policy arrangements, e.g. getting food export restrictions specially waived or opening embassies where the contracts will be carried out"[7]) with an ultimate take-over by the private sector. They also plan for some of the food they grow to go to communities in the producing country. They are prone to talk about "win-win" outcomes, and will often swap food for energy (i.e. contracts to provide oil and gas supplies in return for land to grow food).

Other Land Grabbers

Other land grabbing nations include Japan and South Korea, wealthy nations that each get about 60 percent from their food abroad. "Indeed, Korean food corporations are already buying up land in Mongolia and eastern Russia to produce food for export back home. The government, meanwhile, is exploring various options itself in Sudan, Argentina and south-east Asia."[7] A third nation is India. "The country has major problems with costs of production (their biggest concern), declining soil fertility and long-term water supplies, to name just a few. In addition, struggles over access to land have become incredibly complicated, especially because of the widespread social resistance to Special Economic Zones. Spurred by the global food crisis, and probably not wanting to be left out, a number of Indian agribusiness chiefs as well as the government-owned State Trading Corporation (STC) now see a need to produce some of the country’s food abroad."[7] India plans to grow oilseed crops, pulses, and cotton abroad while still growing wheat and rice at home.

Land Grabs for Investment

A second reason for land grabbing is financial investment.

"Given the current financial meltdown, all sorts of players in the finance and food industries – the investment houses that manage workers’ pensions, private equity funds looking for a fast turnover, hedge funds driven off the now collapsed derivatives market, grain traders seeking new strategies for growth – are turning to land, for both food and fuel production, as a new source of profit. Land itself is not a typical investment for a lot of these transnational firms. Indeed, land is so fraught with political conflict that many countries don’t even allow foreigners to own it. And land doesn’t appreciate overnight, like pork bellies or gold. To get a return, investors need to raise the productive capacities of the land – and sometimes even get their hands dirty actually running a farm. But the food and financial crises combined have turned agricultural land into a new strategic asset. In many places around the world, food prices are high and land prices are low. And most of the “solutions” to the food crisis talk about pumping more food out of the land we have. So there is clearly money to be made by getting control of the best soils, near available water supplies, as fast as possible."[7]

GRAIN distinguishes between "typical transnational agribusiness operations, where Cargill might invest in a soya bean crushing plant in Mato Grosso in Brazil," and land grabbing, in which the transnational corporation acquires the farmland itself. It identifies the two main players as the food industry and, "much more significantly," the finance industry.[7] Currently, the most common food industry players are Japanese and Arab trading and processing corporations. The finance industry is looking for "save havens" and they see land as a smart bet as cheap land is available and there will always be demand for food. As the finance industry looks to land as an investment, agencies like World Bank, its International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are eager to help by "greasing the way for this investment flow and “persuading” governments to change land ownership laws so that it can succeed."[7]

Land Grabbing by Japan

In Japan:

"Five trading conglomerates dominate Japan’s food and agribusiness market: Mitsubishi, Itochu, Mitsui, Marubeni and Sumitomo. They are involved in purchasing, processing, shipping, trading and retail. They mostly focus on serving the needs of the domestic Japanese market. But because that market is ageing and shrinking, growth has to be found elsewhere."[7]

These corporations are "moving overseas (to capture new markets) and upstream (towards production)."[7] They are now acquiring farmland in China, Brazil, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

Land Grabbing by Financial Corporations

Major financial players include Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, BlackRock Inc, Morgan Stanley, Renaissance Capital, Alpcot-Agro, Black Earth Farming, which each acquired land "to produce grains, oils, meat and dairy for those in the hungry world market … that is, for those who can pay."[7] Targeted countries include: Malawi, Senegal, Nigeria, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Paraguay, even Australia. "They have all been identified as offering fertile land, relative water availability and some level of potential farm productivity growth. The time horizon investors are talking about is, on average, 10 years – with a clear understanding that they have to make the land productive and to build marketing infrastructure, not sit back idly – with projected annual rates of return of 10–40% in Europe or up to 400% in Africa."[7]

Land Grabbees

The governments of countries in which land grabs are taking place often invite the large scale foreign land acquisitions. "After all, for them it means fresh inflows of foreign capital to build rural infrastructure, upgrade storage and shipping facilities, consolidate farms and industrialise operations. There are plenty of research and breeding programmes promised in several of these deals as well."[7] Often governments change laws of land ownership or take other actions to invite investment:

"The Kazakh government, in its bid to attract foreign farmland investors, has implemented land share policies and permanent land use rights. Ukraine is expected to lift its ban on the sale of farmland to foreigners very soon. Sudan, where most land is owned by the government, is issuing 99-year leases for a very low cost, if not for free...
"In the background, the World Bank and the EBRD, among others, are actively advising governments to modify land ownership policies and practices so that foreign investors have more incentives to put money into farmland abroad. According to World Bank officials, changing land ownership laws is an integral target of the Bank’s US$1.2bn package to deal with the food crisis in Africa."[7]


Of 2042 publicly reported deals as of November 2011, 948 of them covering 134 hectares were located in Africa, representing 46.4 percent of all such reported deals. Of these, deals in Africa covering 34 million hectares were "cross referenced" for validity, compared to 43 million hectares reported (29 million cross-referenced) in Asia and 19 million hectares reported (6 million cross referenced) in Latin America. What's more, Africa is being carved up into a much more global pie than other regions, as the majority of Asian land deals are made with investors in Asia, and the majority of Latin American land deals are made with Latin American and North American investors. Of the area involved in land deals that have been cross referenced in Africa: 38.7 percent went to Asian investors; 20.2% to African investors; 18.9% to European investors; 11.7% to Western Asian [Middle Eastern] investors; 10.4% to North American investors; and 0.2% to Latin American investors. "The high levels of interest in acquiring land in Africa appear to be driven by a perception that large tracts of land can be acquired from governments with little or no payment."[9]

Role of International Organizations

The United Nations

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been cautiously optimistic about the land grabs, but wary of the potential for negative publicity.

According to a 2008 Wall Street Journal article:

"Jacques Diouf, the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has campaigned for years for more foreign investment in the global agriculture sector. But he said he is advising the Gulf states against outright land purchases, which he says could trigger political backlash in developing countries that are struggling to feed their own populations. Mr. Diouf said he doesn't want unintended scandals to cause this new wave of investment into agriculture to dry up.
""Foreign direct investment in agriculture is the only way we are going to eradicate global poverty," he said. "I have no problem in Arabs doing the investment. Where I start getting worried is [a situation in which investors] rush and buy land all over the place," said Mr. Diouf. "Land is a political hot potato," he said. "My job is to avoid...provoking a negative response in the developing world." (emphasis added)
"Joint ventures would maximize returns for both the investors and the developing countries, Mr. Diouf said...
"The deals have raised concern that agriculture resources could be dominated by foreign investors who will ship food overseas. In politically unstable countries, meanwhile, critics worry that large-scale foreign investments could prop up unpopular regimes or exacerbate longstanding legal disputes over land ownership, much as big foreign oil or mining concessions have done.
"Mr. Diouf said he supports the proposed Gulf food deals, saying if they are constructed correctly they have the potential to transform developing economies by providing jobs both in agriculture and other supporting industries like transportation and warehousing.
"He said he told members of the ruling families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two biggest emirates of the United Arab Emirates, to concentrate investment on joint-venture projects in which they provide capital, management expertise and salaries to local workers.[10]

The World Bank

A World Bank report on "large scale land acquisitions" (also known as land grabbing) says:

"One of the highest development priorities in the world must be to improve smallholder agricultural productivity, especially in Africa. Smallholder productivity is essential for reducing poverty and hunger, and more and better investment in agricultural technology, infrastructure, and market access for poor farmers is urgently needed. When done right, larger-scale farming systems can also have a place as one of many tools to promote sustainable agricultural and rural development, and can directly support smallholder productivity, for example, through outgrower programs. However, recent press and other reports about actual or proposed large farmland acquisition by big investors have raised serious concerns about the danger of neglecting local rights and other problems. They have also raised questions about the extent to which such transactions can provide long-term benefits to local populations and con- tribute to poverty reduction and sustainable development."[11]

In the same report, the Bank recognizes the issues associated with land grabs, saying: "Too often, they have included a lack of documented rights claimed by local people and weak consultation processes that have led to uncompensated loss of land rights, especially by vulnerable groups; a limited capacity to assess a proposed project’s technical and economic viability; and a limited capacity to assess or enforce environmental and social safeguards."[5]

However, the Bank sees land grabbing as a potential way to increase farm yields on currently cultivated land, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, without expanding deforestation. This sentiment is very much in line with advocates of a "Second Green Revolution," including many agrochemical companies (such as those within the Global Harvest Initiative), that expanding industrialized agriculture to Sub-Saharan Africa is the path forward to increasing food production without cutting down the rainforests.

To this end, the Bank says:

"In particular, none of the Sub-Saharan African countries of most interest to investors is now achieving more than 30 percent of the potential yield on currently cultivated areas. So, increasing productivity on existing farmland would have a much bigger impact than simply expanding the land area at current yields."[5]

The Bank continues, encouraging countries in the Global South to open their border to investors, encouraging land grabbing as a potential way to disseminate agricultural technology:

"There is also considerable scope for a South-South exchange of good practice. Again, when done right, larger-scale farming can provide opportunities for poor countries with large agricultural sectors and ample endowments of land. To make the most of these opportunities, however, countries will need to better secure local land rights and improve land governance. Adopting an open and proactive approach to dealing with investors is also needed to ensure that investment contributes to broader development objectives. Experience in Asia and in Latin America and the Caribbean can provide lessons for Sub-Saharan African countries that have confronted these issues more recently."[12]

The Bank feels that "investments can provide benefits through four channels: (i) supporting social infrastructure, often through community development funds using land compensation; (ii) generating employment; (iii) providing access to markets and technology for local producers; and (iv) higher local or national tax revenue."[13]


Access to Land and Housing for Local Peoples

Often at stake in large land deals is access to land for indigenous peoples and peasant farmers. According to a 2012 report:

"There is a widespread perception that much land is “empty”, “available”, or “wilderness”. This is not the case. Virtually all valuable land is used or at least claimed by local people. The land that forms the prime focus of large-scale land acquisition is not land under permanent cultivation but unfarmed forests, grasslands, and marshlands held and used as communal assets by rural communities. These lands are usually owned collectively by tradition and customary law and also used collectively."[14]

In addition to the fact that such "available" lands are actually collectively or communally owned and managed and crucial to the livelihoods of local peoples (providing grazing land for livestock, forest products, water, and other resources), often the land targeted by investors is actually very desirable lands:

"Despite the rhetoric of targeting marginal lands, acquirers are most interested in lands that are fertile, well- watered or with good rainfall, easily accessed by roads or rail, and with electricity transmission, market centres, habitation (helpful for employing people), and export servicing centres nearby. These are areas that are likely to be already used relatively intensively by local people, and not just for farming."[15]

Many cases have been documented of traditional land rights not being respected by governments, who instead give or sell land out from under local peoples who have lived on it for generations:

"It is important to note that dispossession does not always result in physical eviction. Local landholders may continue to live on the land until developments take place – and development may occur only slowly. Frequently, communities may keep their houses and permanent farmland but lose their common property, or they may lose part of their landholdings, being squeezed on to residual areas."[16]
"There are many cases in which no compensation is paid to individuals, families, and communities whose land is taken. The reason is usually that the customary ownership of local land occupants is not legally recognised."[17]

This has often resulted in families being pushed away from markets, access to water, forests, grazing lands, coastal fishing areas, irrigation, and other resources. When families are compensated for their lost land, they are often compensated at below market values, or compensated at market values from before investors entered and land prices rose, leaving them unable to purchase equivalent land in an environment of higher land prices. What's more, "the expropriation of farm and residential land and the outright eviction of rural communities has also been reported."[18]

Access to Water for Local Peoples

"Land deals for irrigation agriculture may grant acquirers priority access to water, or even an entitlement to specified quantities of water (Cotula 2011a). Where this happens, water abstraction and enforceable water rights may adversely affect water access for other users. Competing water interests can be particularly difficult to manage in large trans-boundary river basins such as those of the Niger and the Nile (Keulertz 2011)."[19]

Environmental Impacts

"A transformation from low-input smallholder agriculture to large-scale, intensive, and industrialised agriculture may imply a range of environmental consequences. These include land degradation, water pollution, excessive use of fresh water, and heavy dependence on fossil fuels for machinery, fertiliser, pesticides, storage, and transportation (Montemayor 2009)... Land acquisitions can also indirectly lead to negative environmental impacts elsewhere...
"Meanwhile, the conversion of forested and uncultivated lands is associated with biodiversity loss, degradation, diversion of water from environmental flows, and loss of ecosystem services such as the maintenance of soil and water quality, as well as carbon sequestration (African Union 2009; Markelova and Meinzen-Dick 2009). Several reports emphasise the depletion of forests. Observations of deforestation are widespread in the context of increasing commercial pressures on land."[20]

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles

External Resources

External Articles







  1. Food Crisis and the Global Land Grab, Accessed May 15, 2011.
  2. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 11.
  3. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 19.
  4. Neil MacFarquhar, "African Farmers Displaced as Investors Move In," New York Times, December 21, 2010.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Klaus Deininger and Derek Byerlee with Jonathan Lindsay, Andrew Norton, Harris Selod, and Mercedes Stickler, "Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can It Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits?," World Bank, September 7, 2010, p. xiv.
  6. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 24.
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 7.13 7.14 7.15 7.16 7.17 7.18 "Seized: The 2008 landgrab for food and financial security," GRAIN, October 24, 2008, Accessed December 17, 2011.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Li Ping, "Hopes and Strains in China's Oversea Farming Plan," Economic Observer, June 30, 2008, Accessed December 17, 2011.
  9. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012.
  10. Margaret Coker, "U.N. Food Chief Warns on Buying Farms," Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2008, Accessed December 17, 2011.
  11. Klaus Deininger and Derek Byerlee with Jonathan Lindsay, Andrew Norton, Harris Selod, and Mercedes Stickler, "Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can It Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits?," World Bank, September 7, 2010, pp. xiii-xiv.
  12. Klaus Deininger and Derek Byerlee with Jonathan Lindsay, Andrew Norton, Harris Selod, and Mercedes Stickler, "Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can It Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits?," World Bank, September 7, 2010, p. xv.
  13. Klaus Deininger and Derek Byerlee with Jonathan Lindsay, Andrew Norton, Harris Selod, and Mercedes Stickler, "Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can It Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits?," World Bank, September 7, 2010, p. xxxiii.
  14. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 34.
  15. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 34.
  16. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 35-36.
  17. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 41.
  18. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 36.
  19. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 39.
  20. Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor, "Land Rights and the Rush for Land," International Land Coalition, January 2012, p. 45.