The Great African Land Rush

Reading about the land rush taking place in Africa is quite puzzling. Information are tepid and occasional. The first impression is that this process is silently underway, to some extents taken for granted, with no clear understanding of boundaries and differences among land rush, foreign direct investments and land grab.

by Angela Zarro

It is a mystified issue that has acquired a sort of fascination for foreign investors and some African governments, while little concern is devoted to the implications on people's life and development. Oxfam (via Reuters) observes that the search of land of developed nations in poor countries 'sounds like good news for local economies' but poses the question of 'how can people in places like Ethiopia be sure they're getting a fair deal' (Alertnet-Reuters). The need of a fair deal - although imperative - may sound a bit rhetorical since, it is reported, deals are done secretly and with no consultation with local dwellers. There is no clear sign of a critical understanding or awareness about the way land rush is shaping up and going to impact on people's lives and livelihoods.

Strikingly, the expression itself of land rush sounds like a linguistic mitigation - if not a legitimization - of what seems to be after all a process of wild and disproportionate assault of natural resources in developing countries. According to the data circulated by the Economist in May 2009 'in the last three years foreigners had secured deals or engaged in talks on between 15 million and 20 million hectares of farm land in developing countries' (the Economist via Reuters).

As it emerges from a SID news mapping SID - see March Trend Monitoring Report - around 20 African countries are affected by a land rush of huge proportions, led by international agribusiness, investment banks hedge funds, commodity traders, foundations and individuals from industrialized countries and emerging economies (USA, Europe, Saudi Arabia, China, India and South Korea). According to an investigation by The Guardian, this is the biggest rush since the colonial era. Key drivers are the global food and water shortage, the oil crisis and the changing climate temperatures in some of the main grain producing countries (Eastern Europe and Australia). Millions hectares of the most fertile African land - Ethiopia is a case in point - are offered to rich countries which can therefore farm and export food to respond to the increased demands of their own markets. Governments like Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania have leased land to outsiders in exchange of promises of cash, roads, and schools, without consulting local dwellers (Bloomberg Businessweek). And too often, these deals are leading to evictions, and civil unrest and general complaints of 'land grabbing' (All Africa).

In such a scenario, social and economic rights of local dwellers are completely undermined. As Martin Kimani points out in the interview for the SID Forum, the idea that 'economic development trumps human rights' in Africa has been prevailing so far. As a matter of fact, he says, '(...) citizen(s) should not be subjected to extrajudicial violence by the State. If this is an absolute principle, what does it mean if the individual lives in an area with precious resources and is resisting moving out to allow large corporations unfettered access?'

How such a phenomenon is going to impact on food security in Africa is not clear and it is not even addressed. Tensions are rising in African countries (ex. Kenya) because people are displaced without compensation. The paradox can occur that vulnerable people who are already suffering food insecurity, will be further negatively affected by the land rush: first by getting deprived of their access to resources; secondly by getting subject to exploitative work in plantations run by foreign investing companies or by getting forced to migrate to other places. In this way food security is neglected two times and local people are disempowered twice, in the name of the need to secure the increasing food demand of the richer nations.

It is suggested that land rush may boost the local economies. However, in the absence of adequate urban and rural development, local economies may end up languishing rather than growing. In Kenya - where services account for the 60 percent of the economy and agriculture for less than 30 percent (WDI 2008) - one could imagine as effect of foreign investments a process of revaluation and rapid advancement of the rural sector together with a higher employment rate and a lower migration trend of young nationals and high skilled. Quite the opposite, data about unemployment and brain drain do not seem to match with such expectation yet. The attractive factor dragging investors in Africa is that these lands are among the cheapest in the world. In Ethiopia, it is reported that 7 million acres of virgin land have been priced just 50 cents an acre per year (Alertnet/Reuters). People are complaining about water pollution and animals poisoning/sickening (Bloomberg Businessweek). Not to mention the use of chemicals, pesticides and the effects of the shift to mono-cultural plantations (as pointed out by Vanda Nashiva in The Guardian). Are African governments prepared to prevent or respond to economic, social and environmental dumping?

Moreover, some of the countries experiencing the land rash, are every year destination of billion dollars in food aid with large portions of their population unable to access food. The combination of foreign aid dependency, food emergency, and low-cost investments may rather lead to a further worsening of local markets performances, rising dependency and further degradation of the local capital (human, physical, social).

Different interests, actors and connections are involved in this process, to the point that it sounds quite evocative of the old stories about exploitation; on the background, the usual stories of lack of political capacity, the lack of accountability, weak states and a neutral international community. In such a context, when African governments negotiate with foreign investors, which 'constituency' among citizens, corporate firms and donors - do they feel to be more accountable to?

Related article: (1) Trend Monitoring Report - Drivers of regional food security; (2) The New land rush in Africa: Interview with Mike Taylor (ILC)

Photo: Kicki