AFRICA: Tractored out by land grabs?

JOHANNESBURG - Rich countries and firms are leasing or buying massive tracts of land in developing nations for the production of food or biofuel.

An area equivalent to Germany's farmed land is at stake, and tens of billions of dollars on offer.

On the plus side, agro-industrial production could develop underused
land, and broaden the world's food production base while providing much
needed resources for poor countries.

But is the land really idle and currently unused? Are small-scale
farmers going to be tractored out in a murky neo-colonial land

Farmers and experts in several African countries know all too well the
need for higher food production, but the scale and structure of the
deals gives rise to concern on many fronts, according to multiple

The food and fuel prices hikes of 2007 and 2008 and a steadily growing
world population raised the immediate and strategic value of food

Food-importing countries that lack land and water but are rich in
capital, such as the Gulf States, are initiating deals to produce food
in developing countries, where land and water are more abundant and
production costs much lower.

Vast tracts of land and huge amounts of money are involved: 15 million
to 20 million hectares, almost equivalent to the total area under
cultivation in Germany, according to analysts at the US-based
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Investment so far
adds up to $20 billion to $30 billion, dwarfing foreign aid budgets for


Joachim von Braun and Ruth Meinzen-Dick of IFPRI point out in a new
policy brief that developing countries with large populations, like
China, South Korea and India, are seeking similar deals, including
growing biofuel crops.

The institute warned that there was a "lack of transparency" in many deals, with the amounts involved "often still murky".

Farmers will never be real farmers again, job or no job, Land is an
"emotional issue", said Theo de Jager, deputy president of Agri SA, the
South African farmers’ association. Some of the deals have already
begun to ruffle feathers in developing countries, most of which are
highly food insecure, and at least one has led to the overthrow of a

An April 2009 policy paper from the German NGO Welt Hunger Hilfe says:
States that are dependent on food imports, in particular, are
surrendering more and more land to foreign investors while failing to
ensure that conditions improve income and food security for their own
population. Agricultural investments are rarely made in such a way that
they offer the local population a genuine share of the benefits. The
paper also points out the risks of high-level corruption.

The president of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers
(IFAP), Ajay Vashee, told IRIN "Faced with a growing population, if we
do not increase our global food production I can foresee another
crisis, maybe in another two years." IFAP, formed in 1946, claims to
represent 600 million mostly small-scale farmers, a third of the
world’s food-growers.

"We are not against the deals, as they will bring in huge amounts of
money for agricultural infrastructure development, besides boosting
food production globally, but we must also realise that in most
developing countries, such as those in Africa, most small-scale farmers
have customary rights and face the threat of being forced off their
land," said Vashee, who farms in Zambia.

IFPRI has called for a code of conduct to be drawn up, modelled on
international business laws to prevent corrupt practices in the context
of foreign direct investment.

So what’s the deal?

According to von Braun, the arrangements usually involve governments,
either directly or through state-owned entities and public-private
partnerships, and the land was usually leased or made available through
concessions, but was sometimes bought.

"The size and terms of the contract differ widely – some deals do not
involve direct land acquisition, but seek to secure food supplies
through contract farming [[and investing in]] rural and agricultural
infrastructure, including irrigation systems and roads – these are the
better deals."

The concept is not new. Von Braun pointed out that China started
leasing land for food production in Cuba and Mexico 10 years ago.

However, in its 2008 report on "land grabbing", GRAIN, a Spain-based
NGO that promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural
biodiversity, warned that the "very basis on which to build food
sovereignty is simply being bartered away" in the deals.

"These lands will be transformed from smallholdings or forests, or
whatever they may be, into large industrial estates connected to
far-off markets. Farmers will never be real farmers again, job or no
job," GRAIN cautioned.

Various Gulf States have struck most of the deals in East Africa, which
is facing some of the biggest food shortages globally. IFPRI’s von
Braun and David Hallam of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation
(FAO) told IRIN it was "too early" to assess the impact of the deals on
food security and farmers in the lessor countries.

Unease, resistance and protests

Farming and pastoralist communities in the delta of Kenya’s Tana River
have reacted strongly to reports of government’s intention to lease a
chunk of this rich coastal land to Qatar. Kenya is facing huge food
shortages and high prices after a third consecutive year of drought.

Mohammed Mbwana, who farms in the area and is an official of the
Shungwaya Welfare Association, a local NGO, said the agreement would
displace thousands of locals. At least 150,000 families in farming and
pastoralist communities depend on the land in question, said to be part
of Kenya’s biggest wetland.

Tana River County councillors have threatened to go to court and block
government’s plans to lease the land. The council’s vice-chairman, Gure
Golo, told IRIN they were opposed to the project because local
communities used the delta for produce and livestock farming.

During drought periods, pastoralists from as far as Garissa, the
capital of neighbouring North-Eastern Province, and other arid regions,
came to the delta in search of pasture and water, he said.

According to media reports, Mozambicans have resisted the settlement of
thousands of Chinese agricultural workers on leased land.

In Madagascar, negotiations with the South Korean Daewoo Logistics
Corporation to lease 1.3 million hectares to grow maize and oil palms
played a role in the political conflict that led to the overthrow of
the government earlier this year, the IFPRI brief said.

In Malawi, Chinese investors were allocated land, used by locals for
agriculture in the southern town of Balaka, to construct a cotton
processing plant. When protests followed, local traditional leaders
were taken to neighbouring Zambia to see what the Chinese might deliver
in terms of development. When they came back they relented and opted to
move to another area "because the Chinese would create jobs for their
subjects", a government official told IRIN.

Foreign companies are here to make profits and there is little that we
can benefit from, whatever they will be growing hereVictor Mhone of the
Civil Society Agriculture Network (CISANET), a grouping of individuals
and NGOS in Malawi, said: "What we need as a country is to improve on
food production, and that can be done if we empower local farmers by
giving them the best land for cultivation. Foreign companies are here
to make profits and there is little that we can benefit from, whatever
they will be growing here."

Sudan, which has received some of the biggest foreign investments in
agriculture in Africa, dismissed notions of the emergence of a new form
of colonialism.

Abdeldafi Fadlalla Ali, the Federal Agriculture Commissioner at the
Sudanese Ministry of Investment, told IRIN that they always ensured
local interests were taken care of in the deals – the produce was sold
locally and local people "become the highest beneficiaries".

Sudan, Ali said, has 84 million hectares of arable land, of which only
20 percent is under cultivation, and had registered 75 deals worth $3.5
billion in eight years. Almost $930 million of this was already
invested. Eight countries, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab
Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, China and India are involved.

Ali reasoned that in the face of limited domestic capital, foreign
investment seemed to be a "better strategy" to achieve agricultural
targets, and expected that produce from the deals would be exported in

Millions of Sudanese require food aid, according to the UN. However,
Ali claimed food insecurity was more related to transport and marketing
than absolute production shortfalls.

IFPRI recommends transparency, respect for existing land rights,
sharing of benefits, environmental sustainability and adherence to
national trade policies as key elements to be incorporated in a
proposed code of conduct. This could include foreign investors being
denied the right to export during an acute national food crisis.

Farmers and think-tanks talk about turning this "opportunity" into a
"win-win" situation. While the agriculture sector in most poor
countries grapples with the impact of the economic slowdown, deals for
arable land continue to prove attractive.

Rwanda recently announced a new programme to identify unexploited
arable land for foreign investors. On the other hand, the Republic of
Congo announced it would lease 10 million hectares of farmland to
individual foreign farmers to boost its food security.

"This is a better option – leasing out land to farmers who will
transfer skills to local farmers, boost the country’s production, and
care about the land," said Agri SA’s de Jager. South African farmers
have helped improve production in Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and
Nigeria, among other countries he said.

But IFAP’s Vashee pointed out that farmers cannot bring in the huge investment needed to build or rebuild infrastructure.

IFPRI is working with the African Union to develop guidelines on how to
negotiate with foreign investors, which will be presented to African
leaders for ratification at a summit in July.


Post published in: Zimbabwe News

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