In the recent economic downturn, some of the world’s largest foreign corporations have found a new sector to invest in: African farmland. The countries that are most vulnerable to the persistent trend of land grabbing are those with weak governments that arefailing to defend justice and national sovereignty. Some governments and communities have leased the land to these multi-national corporations (MNCs) after promises by the latter to produce food, electricity, and jobs for the community. However, these promises are not fulfilled. This is the story of a village near Kusagwu in northern Ghana dealing with the company Biofuel Norway.

This unfortunate lack of truth and transparency in the land grabbing process is by no means unique. In a recent article, the World Bank noted that in a majority of situations indigenous communities end up being worse off after they enter into business transactions with multi-national corporations than they were before their involvement. This is true not only because the promises of jobs and economic opportunities did not come to fruition, but also because much of the land that companies decided to invest in is not actually cultivated. In some cases, corporations purchase land without an understanding of how to properly farm it. Instead of using methods that would have high yields and be sustainable, they use methods that wear the land out quickly, leaving it unusable to the community. When the land is cultivated, it is often used to develop biofuel technology drives up the prices of food crops. The indigenous people must watch as corn is grown to feed into engines rather than their hungry stomachs.

Many communities are very resistant to land grabbing, as it is frequently seen to be little more than neocolonialism. In Madagascar, for example, a quarrel broke out between advocates and dissenters of a deal with the South Korean company Daiwoo Logistics. The conflict escalated to the point that the government, who had endorsed the deal, was ousted in a coup and replaced. On the issue of land grabbing, the new President, Andry Rajoelina’s, position is clear; “Madagascar’s land is neither for sale nor for rent.”

Furthermore, much of the several million hectares that have been “grabbed” in sub-Saharan Africa alone over the past four years have not been developed at all yet. Instead, the land is taken to hedge bets. Global corporations use the land as an investment, hoping that it appreciates in value while the company holds onto it. This coincides with the concept of buying up “untapped” land to produce more for a world on an increasingly thin food margin. It does not, however, help people who are hungry now and need this land for food production in the present. Fertile land with water access is the type of land that will be the most valuable in the future, so that is what multi-national corporations are focusing on buying now.

The central Ghanaian regions of Brong Ahafo and Ashanti were selected for a more in-depth study by the World Bank to determine the effect of land acquisition on small farm owners and community members. The World Bank found disturbing results: just over a million hectares recently sold to foreign investors, typically those interested in biofuel, only a fraction (about 10,000 hectares) have been cultivated thus far.

Before the Multinational Corporations invested in land in Africa, acquiring land was part of the economic realities for those with means and influence. In most cases the poor and the powerless are the first to lose their land to the rich and the powerful. Evan Fowler, an AFJN intern, saw this first hand during her stay in Uganda where she spent two months living with a host family. The family had a nineteen-year-old live-in maid named Jane, who was from the countryside. Jane lost her parent to AIDS and her grandmother in a violent robbery. With a monthly wage of $45, Jane supported her three little siblings and her older brother. One day, a man offered to buy their land for a pittance. The brother, of course, refused the offer. Later that day, the brother was arrested for “squatting” and thrown in jail. Jane went to get her brother out of prison only to find that the police and most of the influential people in her community had been bribed by the man trying to buy her family’s land. In addition, the police told her that their deed was not valid. Ultimately, she got her brother out of jail by virtue of bribe and due to the fact that her employer called the police station pretending to be a lawyer from Kampala, threatening to get them in a lot of trouble with the law.

Land grabbing is an issue that affects individuals, communities, and nations. Africa Faith and Justice Network believes that land grabbing should be brought into the public’s view and opposed with the last energy before it is too late. African governments have the duty to look after the interests of their people, but many of them are facilitating the practice of land grabbing. We must shine more light to this issue to generate more international support for the victims and more importantly empower the people to resist.

By Julie Albert