Land Grabs - Another Scramble for Africa
feed every single human being on the planet, yet the majority of people
in Africa and the rest of the Global South, who are poor - whilst
obesity soars in the West - go rampantly hungry? In addition, why has
there been a recent 'land grab' in Africa by rich countries?
The short answer to the first question lies in the unequal distribution
and control of global wealth and its ownership, which lies in a few
hands. The answer to the second question is tied to the first and is
the focus of this article.
The recent haste i.e. within the last 12 months, to buy land in Africa,
has its origins in a number of factors related to global food security
concerns, particularly the increase in world grain prices between
2007-2008 which led to food riots in over 20 countries around the
world, including Haiti, Senegal, Yemen, Egypt and Cameroon.
Contributing to this state of affairs has been the volatility of food
prices in the international market and speculation on future food
prices. The food growing nations imposed tariffs on staple crops to
minimise the amounts that left their countries. The consequences of
this were that it escalated the situation further.
For the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar (which control
45 per cent of the world's oil), they are finding that they can no
longer rely on regional and global markets to feed their populations.
They have rushed to grab land in Africa and are the pioneers of this
agri-colonialism to secure food supplies for their own populations. The
geopolitical ramifications of this is that food is likely to become the
next coveted commodity like oil.
Other factors include failure to deal with environmental trends such as
climate change, which has led to water shortages and drought in several
places around the world. The impact of drought in places such as the
Rift Valley for the Masai people in Kenya and Punjabi farmers in
Pakistan has been totally disastrous.
In short, these global developments have led countries such as China,
South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are short of arable land,
to seek agricultural investments in Africa. They are joined by
Malaysia, Qatar, Bahrain, India, Sweden, Libya, Brazil, Russia and the
As the world's population is projected to grow from 6 billion to 9
billion by 2050, the capacity of the world to produce as much
abundantly as it has done is beginning to be squeezed. The world must
change how food is produced, how much is eaten in the richer parts of
the globe, and slow down its negative impact on the environment.
Otherwise the crisis in food security because of a rising demand will
be catastrophic in years to come, as food production fails to keep pace
with rising demand. It appears for countries like Saudi Arabia that can
no longer feed their own populations, they are aggressively seeking to
do this by buying land in other countries.
Is 'land grabbing' just scaremongering
In the last 4 months a spate of articles in the Western media, with
headlines such as: 'The food rush: Rising Demand in China and West
Sparks African Land Grab', 'The World Wide Land Grab', and
'Africa Investment Sparks Land Grab Fear' - have given publicity to
this emerging trend. Setting aside the sensationalist headlines, the
trend is a profoundly disturbing one for the political and economic
implications it suggests.
The cause for alarm among Africans is justified when the trend is being
dubbed a 'neo-colonial system' by the head of the United Nations Food
and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf. The deputy director
of the FAO, David Hallam, claims: 'This could be a win-win situation or
it could be a sort of neo-colonialism with disastrous consequences for
some of the countries involved. There is a danger that host countries,
particularly the more politically sensitive and food-insecure, will
lose control over their own food supplies when they need it most.'
Others have also referred to it as 'the new colonialism' and 'agrarian
colonialism'. The reality is that in the last year millions of hectares
of land have been leased for bio fuel and agricultural production by
countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Tanzania, Kenya and Sudan. For
example, Saudi Arabia has approached the Tanzanian government in April
2008 to lease 500,000 hectares of farmland for rice and wheat
The pros and cons of these new large-scale land acquisitions have
recently been presented in a paper entitled Land Grab or Development
Opportunity? Agricultural Investment and International Land Deals in
Africa, published in June by the FAO, the Institute for Environment and
Development (IIED) and the International Fund for Agricultural
The liberal position of the authors is that their 'aim is not to come
up with definitive answers, but to facilitate bold debate among
government, private sector and civil society interest groups.' They
point out that 'there is a big difference between announcing plans [to
sell or lease land] and actually acquiring land - let along starting to
cultivate it.' They maintain that some of the land purchases are
unprecedented and significant. They concur with the Economist that
'investment in foreign farms is not new.'
What is unprecedented, is firstly, the scale of the land deals that
have been transacted. The Washington DC think-tank, the International
Food Policy Research Institute (IFRI) estimates the deals to be worth
between US$20 - $30 billion and involving between 15 - 20 million
hectares of farmland in poor countries in Africa, Cambodia, Pakistan
and the Philippines. According to the FAO report, such huge deals could
be 'the tip of the iceberg'. Already 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million
acres) of farmland in five sub-Saharan African countries have been
bought or rented in the last five years at a total cost of $920 million
( Â£563 million).
The second important characteristic of these new land acquisitions is
that they are focused on staples (e.g. wheat, maize, rice, jatropha) or
bio fuels. For example, in 2002 Sudan signed the Special Agricultural
Investment Agreement with Syria. It involves a 50-year lease by the
government of Sudan to the government of Syria. According to the FAO
paper, 'the Saudi Arabia company Hadco reportedly acquired 25,000
hectares of cropland in Sudan with 60 per cent of the project's cost
coming from the governmental Saudi Industrial Development Fund.' In
Ethiopia, the government of Meles Zenawi has recently accepted a deal
of US$100 million for farmlands permitting Saudi Arabia to cultivate
barley and wheat.
Thirdly, in the past, foreign farming investment was pursued by private
investors. Now, several new deals are government-to-government. At
times the acquirers are foreign companies. The sellers are host
governments dispensing land e.g. Cambodia leased land to Kuwaiti
investors in August 2008. In the same year the Sudanese and Qatari
governments set up a joint venture in Sudan. The land is usually leased
or made available through concessions but sometimes bought. Adding to
the complexity of the land buying deals is the fact, pointed out by the
FAO paper, that 'there is no single dominant model for financial and
ownership arrangements but rather a wide variety of locally specific
arrangements among government and the private sector.
A win-win situation for all involved?
The FAO paper seeks to manoeuvre between extolling the advantages of
the land deals and offering a critique of them. The authors write,
'This fast-evolving context creates opportunities, challenges and
risks. Increased investment may bring macro-level benefits (GDP growth
and government revenues), and create opportunities for raising local
living standards. For poorer countries with relatively abundant land,
incoming investors may bring capital, technology, know-how and market
access, and may play an important role in catalysing economic
development in rural areas. On the other hand, large-scale acquisitions
can result in local people losing access to the resources on which they
depend for their food security and livelihoods.'
What these deals do not spell out is the environmental tab of highly
intensive farming - that is devastated soils, dry aquifers and ruined
ecologies from chemical contamination. This will be the cost to the
host country to pick up - no different from the environmental wreckage
of exploitation carried out by Anglo-Dutch Shell in the Niger Delta
region in Nigeria.
Dr Vandana Shiva, Director of the Research Foundation for Science,
Technology and Ecology in India, questions the current zeal for
biofuels in the West that not only require millions of hectares of
land, but, as she points out 'are very centralised and industrial.'
They were a hidden factor behind the 2007-8 increase in global food
prices, however, Shiva points out that the production of biofuels as an
alternative to fossil fuels is forcing many farmers to switch their
production on land that would otherwise be used to grow food.
In central India, the region of Chattisgarh has seen several jatropha
fields ripped up by villagers (jatropha produces oil sees that can
produce biodiesel). One woman who was imprisoned for doing so,
forthrightly said 'the problem we have with jatropha is that we can't
eat it. We can't burn it; we can't use it for anything. The poor have
to make their living from the land. Jatropha is only useful for fuel.
As we don't have a vehicle it is of no value to us. Also, a big problem
is that if our animals eat jatropha they die.'
Recently, it is alleged that land in northern Ghana has been offered to
a Norwegian bio fuel company to create a massive jatropha plantation.
The people of northern Ghana should heed the experience of the
dispossessed villagers of Chattisgarh who wish to be self-sufficient in
food production yet their land has been given over to the exploitation
of jatropha for profit.
Walden Bello rightly contends that at independence many African
countries were self-sufficient in food production and were exporters of
food. That situation has dramatically changed. The policies of
Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) dictated by the IMF and World
Bank during the 1980s and 1990s helped to destroy African agriculture
through the imposition of conditionalities as the price for receiving
IMF and World Bank assistance to service debt. African governments were
obliged to withdraw government controls and support mechanisms and in
addition 'lifting price controls on fertilisers while simultaneously
cutting back on agricultural credit systems simply led to reduced
application, lower yields, and lower investments.'
As the IMF and World Bank insisted that their policies would lead to
foreign direct investment 'in country after country, the predictions of
neoliberal doctrine yielded precisely the opposite: the departure of
the state "crowded out" rather than "crowded in" private investment.'
In short, 'as in many other regions, structural adjustment in Africa
was not simply underinvestment but state divestment.' Currently African
governments such as that of Ethiopia and Sudan are using the argument
of seeking foreign direct investment as the reason why they have
invited rich countries to purchase land in their countries. Even before
these unprecedented land purchases, farmers in Africa had been forced
to grow crops that the market demanded if they were to make a living.
Few farmers had genuine options. They often get into debt in order to
purchase or hire machinery, acquire credit to purchase seeds,
fertilisers, or abandon farming altogether in order to migrate to urban
areas in search of an alternative means of living.
Overall, the political and economic risks of these land purchases are
colossal and outweigh any gains. The reasons are many. Firstly, the
unequal power relations in such deals jeopardise the livelihoods of the
poor. In essence, the foreign investor has the might of power in money
to buy off local and government elites in their favour. In this way,
smallholders will be legally trampled on, displaced, if not
dispossessed of their land. Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a researcher at the IFPR
claims, 'The bargaining power in negotiating these agreements is on the
side of the foreign investor, especially when its aspirations are
supported by the host state or local elites.'
Often these smallholders have little formal education and do not
understand the full implications of the small print in legal documents.
In addition to this, the UN and other agencies caution that many
African farmers often do not have formal rights to the land they farm
and therefore will be pushed off in favour of the investor.
Secondly, many African countries do not have in place the legal
mechanisms or procedures to protect the rights of such smallholders.
Compounding the matter is that there is often lack of transparency and
checks and balances in such contract negotiations. This creates a
fertile ground for corruption, particularly as there are often huge
gaps between what is on the statute books and the reality on the ground
that can be manipulated in particular interests.
Is it just a case of greater transparency or a necessary code of
conduct? The July meeting of the G8 group of rich countries in north
eastern Italy pledged to develop a proposal on principles and best
practices on purchase of land in developing countries. This code of
conduct is being support by the IFPRI and the African Union (AU).
The win-win language of Western agri-businesses conceals the fact that
as Raj Patel points out, 'as lands have fallen before the banks,
repossessed and repurchased, suicide rates for farmers across the world
have soared.' Whilst records of suicides amongst African farmers
are unknown, according to P. Sainath, between 1997 and 2007 the
official numbers of Indian farmers who have committed suicide has
reached 182,936. He writes, 'Those who have taken their lives were deep
in debt - peasant households in debt doubled in the first decade of the
neoliberal "economic reforms."' Meanwhile, it is ironic that whilst
Indian farmers commit suicide, the Indian government is seeking to
purchase land for growing food in Ethiopia and Sudan.
The barometer of social distress is reflected in the increase in
suicide rates in countries such as Sri Lanka, China and South Korea. As
Patel points out, 'these are not only individual tragedies, but social
ones.' They tell the story of political and economic powerlessness
of a community. They are an acute symptom of a society's inability to
ensure not only food sovereignty but economic security in the hands of
a people. They are also indicative of the absurdity of the capitalist
free trade logic of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that dictates
that competition is good and will weed out the inefficient producer.
Meanwhile, farmers in the West continue to receive agricultural
subsidies that give them a head start in the capitalist game and they
are able to out price African farmers.
Why land grabbing is a critical topic for Africans
For the majority of Africans land remains both an emotive and political
issue. One only has to look at the history of settler-colonialism in
Africa, in countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa to see
that land is not only an issue of economic resources, and therefore
livelihood, but is also tied to identity. The continued purchase of
African land is a critical topic for Africa because it is an integral
dimension of the neo-colonial partnership that exists between the elite
in African countries and Western governments and trans-national
Such a class continues to perform the role of gatekeepers of the
rentier state, that is, renting out the resources of the state, whether
it be oil, diamonds, coltan or land, that should be utilised for the
benefit of the African majority, in order to consolidate their own
political and economic base and to shore up their illegitimate regimes
in terms of defence and security. Frantz Fanon aptly described such an
elite as considering themselves as having 'nothing to do with
transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the
transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though
camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.'
In cognisance of this masque, we should ask: To what extent are the
leaders of Sudan and Ethiopia different from the African chiefs and
kings who during the days of colonialism signed away their land not
knowing exactly what they were signing away? Today, unlike the African
chiefs of the colonial era, African leaders such as Meles Zenawi and
Omar Bashir sign such contracts with deliberation and calculation.
Moreover, to what extent would Europe, Britain or the US have developed
in the way they currently have, if they had sold or leased huge
hectares of their land to other countries? This outsourcing of African
land is a profoundly negative feature of globalisation and it is
necessary that we stop our rulers voluntarily making us a colony again.
Such neo-colonial partnerships are indirectly a re-colonisation of
Africa's resources, which is unlikely to benefit all parties equally.
For example, the European Union (EU) paid developing countries Â£125
million in 2008 to allow modern European fleets to fish the waters of
developing countries. The deals proved controversial and continue to
be. For years European trawlers from around the world and particularly
Europe have fished off the coast of Senegal, some are legal and some
are illegal. Every year about 25,000 tons of fish is exported to the
EU. Many big trawlers fly Senegalese flags and are allegedly Senegalese
ships. Yet as Moussa Faye from Actionaid, who campaigns against
overfishing, candidly remarks, 'They are cheating the Senegalese
government and the Senegalese people, because they are actually
European enterprises who come for our resources and who export the fish
and the profit they make. I think that this issue should serve
Senegalese people and should be a source of livelihood for the people
here. There is also a serious limitation on the numbers of trawlers
authorised to fish. We rely mainly on fish as source of animal protein
in Senegal, which means we have less animal protein available for
people who cannot afford to buy meat. The result will be
Like European trawlers engaging in fish farming in African waters for
their own people, there is no doubt that the countries involved in land
purchases in Africa, the Gulf States, India, South Korea and China, are
seeking to ensure cheap food for their own citizens. Similarly, during
the slave trade and colonial period in Africa, European nations managed
to maintain a tacit social contract with their working classes: The
ruling class would maintain low levels of hunger and deprivation where
possible, by ensuring sufficient quantities of food was available. This
contract was maintained on the backs of millions of African slaves in
the New World and colonial subjects in the African colonies, who
produced cheap sugar, tea, cotton, rubber, tin, palm oil, that were
shipped to the colonial metropole. Then - as now - the cheap sugar and
other agricultural products were intended to pacify the bodies of
European workers. In the light of the riots that occurred in over 20
countries in 2007-8, the spate of new land deals perform a similar role
in pacifying such citizens at the expense of the African poor and
African farming communities in particular. In such a situation, who
will feed Africa's hungry?
What is to be done?
Malagasy farmers have recently given farmers worldwide an example of
what is to be done. In fact their example requires wider media coverage
in the dissemination of globalising resistance and victories against
such land deals. The farmers of Madagascar recently resisted the
neo-colonial deal between South Korea's Daewoo Logistics and the
government of Marc Ravalomana. The announcement of the deal led to the
toppling of Ravalomana's government when the people of Madagascar were
informed that the Ravalomana government had entered into a land deal to
lease 1.3 million hectares in a 99-year lease in east and west
Madagascar to the South Korean Company Daewoo Logistics. The contract
gave Daewoo Logistics the right to grow and export maize and oil palm
to South Korea to the tune of US$6 billion.
The 34 year-old new president of Madagascar said that land was not for
sale in his country. The Malagasy Farmers Confederation (Fekritana)
mobilised its workers to resist the contract. Its programme officer,
Rihatiana Rasonarivo said that it was not in the interests of
Madagascar to lease land for food. He said: 'We don't agree with the
idea of foreigners coming to buy land in Madagascar. Our concern is
that first of all the government should facilitate the access to land
by local farmers before dealing with foreigners. One of the biggest
problems for farmers in Madagascar is land ownership, so we think it's
unfair for the government to be selling or leasing land to foreigners
when local farmers do not have enough land.'
Similarly, in the Philippines, a poor South East Asian country of 90
million people, the politician Rafael Mariano, who represents Filipino
farmers introduced a resolution calling for an immediate enquiry into
what he characterised as the 'great foreign land grab.' He said: 'It is
the height of stupidity for our country to bargain our lands for the
sake of other nation's food security, while being dependent on
importation for our very own food security needs.' Therefore, it is
necessary to question how it is possible that Ethiopia, a country which
is largely associated with famine and Live Aid, is able to have signed
land deals with Saudi Arabia, when it cannot feed its own population
but is promising to feed the people of Saudi Arabia? Similarly, why is
the Kenyan government considering leasing parcels of the rich coastal
lands in the delta of Kenya's Tana River, which is home to farming and
pastoralist communities, when Kenya is currently facing not only huge
food shortages and high prices but a third consecutive year of drought?
Other protests which have received little media coverage in the West
and in Africa is the campaign led by the militant Asian Peasant
Coalition (APC) and International League of Asia Wide Peasants Caravan
for Land and Livelihood from July 2009 to November 2009 in ten Asian
countries. The theme of the Peasant's Caravans is 'Stop Global Land
Grabbing! Struggle for Genuine Agrarian Reform and People's Food
Sovereignty.' This grassroots movement is seeking to bring to light the
plight of poor peasants whose livelihoods have been worsened by
neo-liberal policies of trans-national corporations, the WTO and
large-scale corporatisation of farming. Their objectives are 'to
popularise peasant victories and success stories in the struggle for
genuine land reform that will inspire' and lead to agrarian change in
the interests of Asian farmers.
In addressing what is to be done, there are a number of actions and
sites of struggle to be initiated. Firstly, African governments must
make food security and sufficiency for their own people paramount.
Agricultural investment is a necessity and number one priority, as is
the need to help small farmers produce greater yields to stem both
rural and urban hunger. African farmers need to be paid a decent wage
to produce for the nation and not for foreign investors. Secondly,
civil society, including African farmers unions and co-operatives need
to educate local people, and small-scale farmers, that such land deals
are not in their interests, however well-meaning or couched in
'win-win' terminology they appear to be. Thirdly, resistance along the
lines of the Malagasy farmers' union and the Asian Peasant Coalition
needs to be shared by farmers unions in the Global South not only in a
spirit of solidarity but also as concrete evidence of collective change
being both a possibility and reality against such land deals.
Ultimately, we need to fight for African people's right to control land
and other critical resources and these must be placed in the interests
of African people.
Dr Ama Biney is a Pan-Africanist and scholar-activist who lives in the United Kingdom.