Africa is a vast continent with many valuable resources, particularly arable land. Unfortunately, this fact is not a secret. Many nations outside of Africa recognize the potential that currently underutilized (or perceived as underutilized) land holds, and several have recently made moves to capitalize on these opportunities. This pursuit of land has led to a disturbing new trend – a global land grab that is becoming extremely popular option among both foreign governments and private firms, and has been labeled by some as “positively neo-colonial.”
In many cases, this scramble for land is catalyzed by environmental issues – water and land shortages that are stagnating agricultural development in countries around the world. The governments of countries experiencing land and/or water shortages have sought to lease land in various African countries to cultivate, and then ship agricultural products out of the continent, back to feed their home nations.
In addition to government participation in this new trend, private investors have also recognized the potential for profit from Africa’s land. While many of these private companies are already working in the agricultural sector, some independent investors are also taking advantage of this new business venture. One of the most decried examples of private land investment is centered on American investment banker Philippe Heilberg, the CEO of the investment fund Jarch Capital. Heilberg closed a deal last summer with one of Sudan’s most notorious warlords, which gave him a lease of 4,000 acres in Southern Sudan.
Another controversial deal involved Daewoo Logistics of South Korea, where the company struck a deal with recently-ousted leader Marc Ravalomanana for access to 1 million hectares in Madagascar. When Ravalomanana was overthrown in a coup by Andry Rajoelina, the deal was canceled, with Rajoelina proclaiming that “Madagascar’s land was not for sale or rent.”
Unfortunately, the growing popularity of biofuels has also caused an increase in foreign land acquisition. The British energy firm CAMS group bought 45,000 hectares of land in Tanzania, and intends to use it to produce 240 million liters of ethanol (from sorghum) per year. Germany’s Flora EcoPower has purchased 13,000 hectares in Ethiopia, and Swedish firm Sekab is negotiating with Tanzania and Mozambique to acquire land for biofuel production, an inefficient use of the continent’s farmland. These companies are only the beginning of a long list who are looking to acquire African land.
The majority of the countries seeking land for food production purposes are Gulf States, which are finding it more difficult to produce adequate food with growing populations and dwindling land productivity. Small countries are also particularly interested in acquiring land, for obvious reasons. Countries that have expressed interest (or have already invested) in Africa’s land are: Bahrain, China, Egypt, India, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the UAE.
This new phenomenon of the global land grab has attracted the attention of NGOs and different media outlets worldwide. This growing phenomenon of outsourcing food production has even garnered the attention of Time Magazine, who ran a story in March entitled “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,” where they ranked the “Rent-A-Country” trend as the number seven idea. The concept of using foreign land may be changing the world, but it is not necessarily a change for the better. While countries who rent the land may be ensuring food security for their own people, they have the potential to harm indigenous populations who depend on that land for survival and have never experienced true “food security.” The issue is even more contentious in Africa where land ownership is not necessarily determined by who holds the deed but by who’s father cultivated that land. Some African governments are renting or selling land that belongs to someone, but for which there is no documentation. While many justify the need for outsourcing food production, many more are concerned that these land acquisitions smack of colonialism. The UN’s food security expert, Olivier DeSchutter, is seeking to establish some type of regulation for these “foreign investments,” and is especially concerned with the fact that “farmers often face forced evictions from the land they were cultivating once their government had traded it with a foreign buyer.”
The Spanish NGO GRAIN, which promotes sustainable agricultural practices worldwide, has spoken out against the global land grab, citing its unjust and colonialist approaches to food security. GRAIN has compiled a list of companies and nations guilty of this land grab, which includes over 100 different instances of acquiring foreign land for the purposes of food and/or biofuel production.
The issue is gaining attention, particularly on the Africa front, and AFJN will continue to monitor the scramble for Africa’s most precious, abundant, and important resource. Policies must be put in place that respect indigenous rights to land and the importance of just international trade and investment.
Written by Meghan Mattern