By Jacques Bahati

Advocates, mostly African diaspora, gathered on March 15 in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill to call attention to the tragic effects of  land grabbing in Africa by foreign investors. The discussion was moderated by Gregory Simpkins, senior advisor to Congressman Chris Smith, the Chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

The consequences of these massive land grabs are worse than those of colonization and slavery. A main motivator for colonizers, political interests aside,  was exporting resources from Africa to their homeland. Slavery consisted of taking people out of Africa to other parts of the world. To the contrary, land grabbers have a very local impact: they are displacing people from the land, taking away a steady livelihood for generations.

Once the land is leased and the community evicted, they have no rights to the water sources, firewood for cooking their daily meals and much more.  Without money to buy material needed to build a home or land to cut it from, where will they find materials to re-build their homes?

It is important to underscore that, like in some cases in the slave trade where chiefs sold people to slave traders, African leaders are freely selling to foreigners what Africans proudly thought no one could take from them.

Land grabbing has become one of the most pressing problems affecting many African communities, as well as other people in developing nations around the world.  Investors are taking advantage of irresponsible, weak, and corrupt governments to acquire vast tracts of fertile land without consulting local communities to whom the land belongs. The local governments are complicit in this theft from the people.

In late 2009 the SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SG SOC), a subsidiary of the US-based company, Herakles Farms, obtained land rights from the Cameroonian Government to 73,086 hectares (180,599.4 acres, 282 square miles) in Southwest Cameroon for a 99-year lease.  Many people have been displaced as a result of this contract which stipulates that the Cameroonian government will collect $1.00 per 2.47 acres developed and US $0.50  per 2.47 acres not developed.  This is an extreme rip-off for the Cameroonian people.

Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) is one of many organizations which has been calling on the US government to pay serious attention to this issue not only because US companies are involved in it, but also because these deals are likely to lead to major crisis such as violent armed conflicts, poverty, increased food insecurity, and political instability  if not properly addressed.  These concerns are consistent with AFJN’s US-Africa policy recommendation which calls on the US to promote responsible investments in Africa, prevention, resolution and mitigation conflicts.

What can US Congress do about land grabbing?  First, there is merit to the argument that US Congress must not be a substitute of African nations’ legislature.  However, in the meantime, using the model of sections 1502 and 1504 of the US Financial Reform and Consumer Protections law of 2010, Congress can partially protect the victims of land grab from US corporations and others involved in this rip off.

Looking ahead, more work has to be done regarding land tenure in Africa. African urgently needs governance reforms to address, among other things, the overdue economic justice question and the rule of law. Even in countries like Liberia and Ghana, where people have been freely and successfully elected their leaders, the latter have yet to properly and adequately represent their constituencies’ interest against land grabbers.