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LAND GRABBING IN AFRICA : A CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER

  • Author : Udoh
  • 2018-06-15

Africa is the richest continent on earth. Most countries in Africa are blessed with resources above the ground, on the ground and under the ground. Africa does not have water supply problems except for rare drought situations in very few countries; there is rainfall all year round in most regions; it is the home of the most fertile lands in the world. Above all, African countries are populated by extremely hardworking people. Paradoxically, despite these resources, African countries are classified as the poorest and the homes of the “hungriest” people in the world. Almost all African countries South of the Sahara are faced with food crisis with millions of children facing starvation and malnutrition as the food crisis reaches a tipping point. If Africans are hardworking and are blessed with fertile land, why do they suffer from food insecurity? This article is intended to raise an awareness of the causes and effects of food insecurity in Africa and the likely consequences to its people unless action is taken to increase food production to stem widespread starvation. Many factors have brought about food insecurity in Africa but only three will be discussed in this article: (i) man-made, (ii) natural, and (iii) land grabbing.

Man-made factors

Humanitarian crisis, triggered by political instability, is prevalent in Africa. At any given period, three out of five African countries, are in constant state of political, religious or ethnic crisis. The consequence has been displacement of people from their traditional habitat, making cultivation of food crops impossible. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency has disrupted all economic activities in the Northern part, leaving the people dangerously short of food. In South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Central African Republic, the never ending internal war has led to the death of the productive population while others have been forcibly displaced internally or forced to move to other countries. Many Africans produce food crops to feed their families. The farmlands are no longer safe for local farmers, especially the women who are abducted and raped while working on their farms by government and ragtag local militia. In the absence of political stability or government protection for the farmers, farming will come to a standstill, leading to food insecurity.

Natural Factors

Some countries have suffered a lack of rainfall resulting in severe drought. Countries in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel Region—Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Mali, Chad, Niger and Somalia—receive much less rainfall than countries in West and Central Africa. Drought has severely limited crop production in these countries, thus exacerbating food crisis. In Kenya low rainfall leaves pastoralists with acute water shortages for their cattle as the pasture become parched making it unsuitable for grazing cattle. Drought not only causes severe food shortages in Africa, but a major natural trigger of malnutrition and famine. It affects the four dimensions of food security – availability, stability, access and utilization. Its impact on agriculture includes crop losses, lower yields in both crop and livestock production, increased livestock deaths, increases in insect infestation and plant and animal diseases, damage to fish habitat, forest and range fires, land degradation and soil erosion. Its impact on human health includes increased risk of food and water shortages, increased risk of malnutrition and higher risk of water‐ and food‐borne diseases.

Land grabbing factor

Land grabbing is classically known as the seizing, illegally or unfairly, of land from private owners by the government or organization. It is recently redefined as a large-scale acquisition of land through purchases or leases for commercial investment by foreign governments, organizations or private investors. The spike in food and oil prices which started early in 2000, coupled with rising population, have triggered interest in farmlands in developing countries, particularly in Africa with massive fertile lands. Asian countries, particularly, China and India, with increasing population and the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, etc. due to climatic conditions rely on food imports to feed their people.  

To reduce the high cost of food importation and to ensure constant supply of food, these countries are acquiring millions of acres of land for offshore farming to produce food locally and export to their countries. Other investors, as Figure II shows, seeking higher returns on investment are also buying lands to grow “energy crops,” e.g. sugar cane, jatropha, corn, soybeans, wheat, for biofuel/ethanol production for export to Europe. Cultivating “energy crops” in Africa is a buffer against shortage of fossil fuels and allows for a decrease in the consumption of fossil fuels, especially oil. The Europeans prefer biofuel because it burns cleaner than fossil fuels, releasing fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. More importantly, unlike oil, coal or natural gas, biofuels will not run out.

According to the 2016 “Land Matrix Analytical Report II: International Land Deals for Agriculture,” globally, 26.7 million hectares of agricultural land have been transferred into the hands of foreign investors since the year 2000. This means that these investors possess approximately two per cent of the arable land worldwide. Africa accounts for 42% of the deals, i.e. 10 million hectares of land in the hands of foreign investors.[i]

How land grabbing causes food insecurity

Ironically, land grabbing is done in tandem with the host governments despite abundant evidence that acquisition of farmlands by foreign investors poses a clear and present danger to the welfare of their citizens. It’s the major cause of famine in Africa because local farmers are dispossessed of their farmlands used for the cultivation of food crops for their families. In some countries, local farmers become labourers in the farms they previously owned. The money they earn is hardly enough for them to use to buy food for their families. The conversion of food crops producing farmlands for the cultivation of “energy crops” has led to low food crops production and higher food prices, and in some countries, deforestation. Contrary to the assertion that foreign investment in land will lead to increased food supply, it has increased hunger because the crops produced are either nonfood crops or for export purposes.

Farmlands, which is the most valuable resource for Africans, are sold at a give-away price. Foreign investors can buy thousands of hectares of prime farmland at as little as between $0.07 and $3.95 per hectare, just about the price of a cup of coffee in Starbucks. In specific terms, the cost of land ranges from $4.8 to $7.1/hectare in Sudan, $6 to $12/hectare in Mali and $6.5 to $10/hectare in Ethiopia, compared to $32.00/hectare in the United States and $300/hectare in Peru. In addition to low cost of land, foreign investors enjoy the protection of the governments to take/export the resources without giving back, and the freedom to destroy the environment without compensation. In addition, foreign investors are paid (tax incentives) to exploit resources for their benefits without being held accountable for anything.  Here are a few examples of how government’s laissez-faire policies have encouraged land grabs:

In Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world and where food insecurity is endemic, the government evicted a total of 260,000 people from 17 distinct ethnic groups from 375,000 hectares (1,450 sq. miles) of land in south western Ethiopia around Lake Turkana and the Lower Omo Valley, a site where some of the oldest human fossils were discovered. The land given to a German company for sugar cane plantation and the construction of seven sugar processing factories. The leader of the ethnic groups is quoted to have said: "Now the government has brought its big muscle, its big force, and says that it will take our cattle and take our land…. We have left it without any people there and we are staying here in the plains being hit by the sun .... The soldiers went all over the place, and they took the wives of the Bodi and raped them, raped them, raped them, raped them. Then they came, and they raped our wives, here," said another farmer. The people of this community are pastoralists who depend on cattle rearing for subsistence. The sale of this land to a foreign corporation denies the people of this community the right to practice their trade. The consequence is increased poverty and a nomadic lifestyle.[ii]

In the Koka region located about 100 kilometers from Addis Ababa, thousands of citizens are displaced to make lands available for the cultivation of flowers (not food crops) by German investors. The investors are offered land at very low lease rates, with 70 percent long term loan, tax free operation for five years and duty-free imports of machinery and green house materials. The land was previously used for state owned animal farming, which provided the much-needed meat products to the residents of Addis Ababa. With the transfer of land to foreign investors, meat becomes a luxury. The Ethiopian government’s ambitious plan is to become one of the top ten sugar and flower producers in the world by 2020 and, hopefully, in return for high export earnings. This will not put food on the tables of ordinary Ethiopians.[iii]

South Sudan is another poor country where most of the local population is pastoral. Generation after generation, people freely graze cattle on their inherited lands. This is all they do to feed their families. In recent years, prompted by the desire to be part of the international community and to boost their foreign currency reserves, the government of South Sudan invoked two laws: the Unregistered Land Act (1970) and the Civil Transaction Act (1984), which provide that “land belongs to God” and as God’s representative on earth, the state is “declared to be responsible for the control and owner of all land” and authorized to use any means, including force, in safeguarding ‘its’ land. These laws strengthen the state’s control over land and facilitate the acquisition or sale of rural land to the local elites and foreign investors at relatively low prices.  Under this new policy, the government granted a Norwegian investor a 99-year lease of 179,000 hectares at an annual rent of just $0.07 a hectare(Reference?). A cup of soda costs more than $0.07 anywhere in the world. A report by Oakland Institute documents how foreign investors pride themselves on being able to get whatever size of farmland they want in Africa by bribing a corrupt leader or a poor tribal chief with a bottle of Johnny Walker.[iv] 

This new policy has had profound implications for Sudanese small farmers, peasants, and pastoral communities. The immediate consequence of the transfer of land to foreign investors is the emergence of a large landless population, internally displaced, without jobs and access to basic social services. To this date, this policy has been a major source of grievance and conflict between the citizens and the government. It reinforces feelings of neglect, marginalization and social repression, and creates large landless groups that are forced to work as precarious wage laborers for foreign investors or to migrate outside their traditional areas to other communities or foreign countries.

In Sierra Leone, the government brags about the extremely low labour rates and flexible labour laws in the country and promises investors 100 percent foreign ownership in all sectors, full repatriation of profits, dividends and royalties, and no limits on expatriate employees.[v]  This is tantamount to selling the country to foreign investors. According to the African Development Bank, a total of 13,617 people[vi] is directly or indirectly affected by the Addax agricultural projects involving acquisition of land in 52 villages. Addax Bioenergy (Swiss Company) gave false promises of making sure those affected continue to live off alternative lands in the neighborhood and promised to provide social facilities such as, schools, health facilities, a community center, employment and water wells. A recent report by the Oakland Institute shows that none of these promises have been fulfilled except for a token employment of 200 people (from among those who lost their farmlands) as laborers with very low wages that do not cover their daily food needs. This left the larger population in the Addax project area without land to farm and without work.[vii]

There is no evidence to show that African governments are committed to protecting and promoting the fundamental human rights and dignity of their citizens. Local farmers are evicted from farmlands that they inherited from their forebears without adequate compensation. This means these farmers are no longer able to produce food to meet the needs of their family members. To survive, they accept to work as laborers for these foreign investors in the farms that were hitherto theirs for ridiculously low wages. Even then, many of these local farmers do not have the opportunity to work as laborers because the investors, with the agreement of the host governments, are able to displace native biodiversity and bypass local trade unions to import their own workforce and technology into the host country.  If local farmers are denied access to their farmlands and are also denied employment, who is the real beneficiary of these investments and how would they ease hunger problem in Africa? It is contended that industrial agriculture has not only exacerbated the level of poverty in Africa, it has also led to environmental destruction, loss of biodiversity, pollution from farming chemicals and crop contamination from genetically modified organisms. A casual visitor to Africa will notice a growing gap between the rich and the poor as well as the well-fed and the hungry caused by large scale farmland acquisition in Africa.

Africans have the responsibility to preserve their heritage, particularly farmlands for the generations yet unborn. Massive transfer of farmlands to foreign investors is a new form of colonialism masterminded by African governments in tandem with foreign investors. It must be resisted.  

 

[i] Agricultural research for Development (2016). “Landmatrix II” : Retrieved from https://www.cirad.fr/en/news/all-news-items/press-releases/2016/landmatrix-ii-26.7-million-hectares-of-land-in-investors-hands  

[ii] Smallteacher, Richard (2013). “Ethiopian Sugar Alleged to Destroy Pastoral Communities of Lower Omo.” CorpWatch. Retrieved from: https://corpwatch.org/article/ethiopian-sugar-alleged-destroy-pastoral-communities-lower-omo 

[iii] Hortibiz (2015). Anadolu Agency. “Ethiopian flowers attract foreign investment.” Retrieved from: http://www.hortibiz.com/item/news/ethiopian-flowers-attract-foreign-investment/

[iv] Oakland Institute (2011) “Press Release: Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa.” Retrieved from: http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/press-release-understanding-land-investment-deals-africa

[v] Baxter, Joan (2011). “The New African Land Grab.” Publication of Global Policy Forum. Retrieved from: https://www.globalpolicy.org/world-hunger/land-ownership-and-hunger/50408-the-new-african-land-grab.html

[vi] African Development Bank: “Addax Bioenergy Project—Sierra Leone.” Retrieved from: https://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Environmental-and-Social-Assessments/Addax%20Bioeneergy

[vii] Oakland Institute (June 2011). “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa. Addax & Oryx Group Bioenergy Investment in Sierra Leone Land Deal Brief.” Retrieved from: http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/OI_Addex_Brief.pdf

 

 

 

 

 


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