Qatar land deal not unique to Kenya

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The Standard (Nairobi) | 06/01/2009

The reported land deal between Kenya and Qatar is not unique.

Global trends point to resource-hungry nations snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land, mostly in poor Asian and African nations in what activists say is a ‘land grab’ that will worsen poverty levels.

China and South Korea, which are both short on arable land, and Middle Eastern nations flush with petrodollars, are driving the trend to sign up rights to swathes of territory in the two continents.

In the Philippines, for instance, it is reported that a series of high-profile deals have clashed with long-running demands for agrarian reform, including land redistribution.

The Philippines Department of Agrarian Reform said in 2007 it was looking at large tracts of land for agribusiness development under a MoU signed with China. The memo calls for the development of land to grow hybrid corn, rice and sorghum.

Because of protests, the Philippines Department of Agriculture suspended plans to allow China to use 1.24 million hectares of agricultural land mostly over fears that the move would aggravate the existing problem of landlessness.

However, the Philippine government is undeterred by such protests and during President Macapagal-Arroyo’s recent visit to Qatar in December, officials opened talks over the lease of another 100,000 hectares of agricultural land to the nation.

A Spanish-based agricultural rights group notes that the current food and financial crises have, in tandem, triggered a new global land grab. The group further said that some deals were targeted at boosting food security by producing crops that would be sent back home for consumption, while others were to establish money-making plantations like palm oil and rubber.

As a result, fertile agricultural land is being swiftly privatised and consolidated by foreign companies in some of the world’s poorest and hungriest countries. An example is that of the Daewoo deal in Madagascar where the company indicated it would invest about $6 billion to develop 1.3 million hectares of land in the country — almost half the size of Belgium.

Under this scheme, Daewoo plans to produce four million tonnes of maize and 500,000 tonnes of palm oil a year, most of which will be shipped out of impoverished Madagascar, where the World Food Programme still provides food relief.

The company in return seeks to build infrastructure; from ports and railways to markets on a barren and untouched area. This sounds similar to the Qatar-Kenyan deal to build a port in Lamu.

Dangerous trend
The danger in this emerging trend is that peasants may be forced from rural areas and into cities where they will add to the ranks of the unemployed. This is expected to be more explosive in countries where there is a high degree of landlessness.

Therefore, is the Kenya-Qatar deal an inevitable process of the global economic trend? Or is Kenya just a pawn in the wider trade game?

Development projects can be an expression of the State’s responsibility to ensure protection of its citizens, but where these may lead to arbitrary displacement, injustice and impoverishment, then the responsibility to take corrective action still falls on the State.

Satwinder Rehal, Philippines.

Original source: The Standard (Nairobi)
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