In November last year, The Financial Times reported that South Korea’s Daewoo had signed a 99-year lease for half of Madagascar’s arable land. According to the report, Daewoo expected to pay “nothing” for the lease.
The agreement covered 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres – an area the size of Belgium). Daewoo said it planned to plant corn on one million hectares in the arid western part of the island and 300,000 ha (740,000 acres) of oil palm on the land on the tropical east.
The Daewoo announcement came after the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that the push by some countries (notably China, Malaysia and Middle eastern nations) to secure farmland overseas could create a neo-colonial system.
I was relieved to hear that on March 18, 2009, the new leader of Madagascar cancelled the deal.
Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia are joining a growing list of countries in Africa, leasing huge tracts of land to foreign corporations for agricultural use. Countries including China, Kuwait and Sweden are snapping up land in poorer nations, especially in Africa, to grow food or bio-fuels for use in their countries.
A few weeks prior to that, there were reports in the Egyptian press that Uganda had leased land to Egypt for the purpose of growing food. This report was denied in Uganda, however, more recently there were reports in The New Vision that Egypt was soon to start growing food in Uganda though the details of the land deal have not been made public and the initial denial by local authorities makes the whole deal suspect.
A few weeks ago there were reports on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Africa Service that an American businessman had acquired a lease for large tracts of Southern Sudan for agriculture. The food crisis and the resultant search for arable land for food security are sparking another scramble for Africa’s land.
I wonder how many other behind-the-scenes transactions are currently underway in the continent that will only be announced when the deals have been signed and perhaps money has exchanged hands. I am afraid that we are selling our inheritance on the continent for a pittance, or the proverbial Esau’s bowl of stew and when the time of need comes with our fast growing population it may not be accessible to us anymore.
All presidents on the continent have recently been hosted in unprecedented numbers in China, India and Japan. One reporter commented that African presidents attended the China meeting in numbers even better than is registered in the African Union Heads of State summits.
It is quite clear that Africa is being courted once again; this time especially by Asia whose large population is in ardent search for agricultural land, energy sources and raw materials. Our continental experience in relating with other continents has been one of exploitation and judging from my reading of current trends I am afraid we are heading for another season of rape and exploitation.
It is not inconceivable that in a few years that piece of real estate in Madagascar would have been developed with infrastructure, ports, beaches and airports. It would then be teeming with Koreans while the impoverished Madagascans are looking in over the fence; the seeds of increased social unrest would have just been sown in that country.
I have followed these developments with a troubled heart. There are many questions I have pondered:
- Have those who are giving out these concessions considered the strategic interests of the African peoples over the next 100 years?
- Do they know what is in the ground that they are leasing out? What if tomorrow there is discovery of oil, diamonds and other minerals in that piece of real estate? Coming from more technologically advanced countries, it would not be surprising if the leassees already know what is in the ground by the time they seek a lease.
- Are they conceding that they have failed to plan strategically to utilise the land in such a way that instead of other nations coming and growing the food themselves, the Africans can do so and, therefore, earn from food export?
- Isn’t the leasing of the land not even worse than selling raw materials to the industrialised countries since the Africans are even denied the chance of earning what they could have, if they had grown the food themselves?
- Have they exhausted the possibilities of joint venturing in such a way that we do not lose control of the land?
- What preparations are in place for Africa’s burgeoning population, which is the fastest growing in the world today?
- How will we cope with the pressures that will result from the demand for land as this population grows?
- Why don’t Africans value their land? Can an African country be allowed the same access to land in Asia or Europe that Madagascar had given Korea?
- How will future generations judge us when faced with the legacy of dis-enfranchisement that this generation of Africans is leaving behind?
- Can a mechanism be created on the continent to check decisions that are deemed to be dangerous to the strategic interests of the African people?