Asia Times | Oct 2, 2009
By Carl Rubinstein
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China's growing appetite for African resources over the last decade is well documented. Indeed, China's massive industrial machine relies on oil from Angola, Sudan, and Nigeria, and minerals from South Africa, Zambia, and Liberia. While China maintains that its trade relationship with Africa is benign, some commentators see China's investment as a resource grab. In 2006, South African president Thabo Mbeki was notably frank when he warned that Africa could fall into a "colonial relationship" with China, leaving Africa "condemned to underdevelopment".
The latest iteration of the Sino-African relationship involves China's burgeoning interest in African agricultural resources. While some commentators have already labeled China's agricultural investment in Africa as self-serving, Chinese leaders are adamant that their actions are being misrepresented. Is China's investment in African agriculture primarily self-interested? In order to better determine the nature and intention of China's food policy in Africa, it is necessary to examine the details and context of China's agricultural investment in Africa thus far.
High on the list of priorities within the Chinese central government is feeding China's 1.3 billion people. But with only 7% of the world's arable land, and the loss of over a million hectares of arable land annually to pollution and desertification, this is no simple task. The global food crisis of 2007-08 and rising food consumption in China only compound the problem. China's food vulnerabilities make securing agricultural assets abroad tempting.
Beginning in the early 1990s, China's interest in Africa increased considerably as China found an accessible source of oil and other raw materials with which to feed its rapidly growing economy. Between 1995 and 2005, China provided at least US$12.5 billion in aid to Africa, canceled billions of dollars in debt, and constructed new roads, schools, government buildings, stadiums and hospitals across the continent. In return, Africa now supplies a third of China's oil.
Some critics have suggested China's investment and trade strategy is unfair and, ultimately, disadvantageous to Africa. Business partnerships are often vague, with loose promises of compensation and profit-sharing that never materialize. Chinese loans often stipulate that ensuing contracts must be awarded to Chinese firms and employ Chinese labor. The influx of Chinese labor and cheap Chinese goods that often follows has weakened local economies and caused unemployment in parts of the continent.
Furthermore, Western commentators have argued that Chinese loans and investments in certain countries - Angola for example - have undermined efforts by Western agencies to improve rule-of-law and government transparency. Many are also critical of China's relationship with Sudan, given the widespread unrest in western and southern Sudan. Among both international and African observers, detractors hold that despite the influx of capital it provides, China's investment in Africa is primarily driven by self-interest and is generally destabilizing.
Many commentators view China's recent agricultural investment in Africa in the same light. Specifically, some worry China will grow food in Africa with Chinese labor and Chinese technology, and then ship this food back to China for local consumption. With Africa the largest recipient of food aid in the world, the consequences of such action could be significant.
China has indeed begun to put down substantial agricultural roots on the African continent. China's investment in Mozambique illustrates both its commitment to the agricultural sector and the diversity of Chinese investment in Africa. Through a series of agreements, China has pledged $800 million to modernize Mozambique's agricultural infrastructure and has financed the building of a dam and canal to bring water to arable land. Additionally, at least 100 Chinese agricultural experts are stationed in several research stations within Mozambique, working with local groups to increase crop yield and otherwise improve the performance of the agricultural sector.
Chinese scientists, agricultural experts and farmers are becoming a common sight in Africa. One estimate from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce puts the number of Chinese experts in Africa at over 1,100 and the number of farm laborers at over 1 million, dispersed throughout 18 countries. These Chinese experts help maintain at least 11 agricultural research stations and no less than 63 agricultural investment projects scattered over southern and eastern Africa.
African commentators also worry about the tendency of African nations to part with their land at the cost of their agricultural security. A recent report written by two UN food policy centers indicated that the majority of land deals in Africa - including Chinese agreements - involve few if any land fees. Rather than collecting rent or fees, African governments settle for prospective employment gains and future economic benefits supposedly brought by foreign farming projects. The details of these arrangements are vague and often lack any guarantees of these potential benefits.
Furthermore, these loose arrangements almost never account for the needs of poorer Africans subsisting on the land prior to sale. While much of Africa's arable land is officially classified as "underutilized", this label largely excludes millions of family farms, small cattle-grazing fields, and even small village farms. Joachim von Braun highlights this risk in a report for the International Food Policy Research Institute, writing that "unequal power relations in the land acquisition deals can put the livelihoods of the poor at risk".
Commentators worry that Chinese-funded infrastructure projects will not bring jobs to Africans, and will instead award contracts to Chinese firms and laborers, as has been China's practice with other non-agricultural investment projects in Africa. As applied to the agricultural sector, this could affect not only farmers, agricultural specialists, and shipping companies, but contractors and construction workers associated with dams, canals, roads and factories as well.
Compounding suspicions of China's intentions is the fact that although rice is not a significant part of the typical diet in Mozambique, China is pouring considerable resources into increasing output of rice, a staple of the Chinese diet. To some, the implications are clear: China first and foremost seeks to secure as much rice crop as it can from Mozambique's farmland, and will advantage its own firms and workforce at the expense of those in Mozambique.
Given this stark assessment, many see China's agricultural investments in Africa as nothing more than a grab for cheap, underutilized land. Jacques Diouf, director of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization has gone so far as to specifically label this type of aggressive land-leasing as "neo-colonialism".
The Chinese, however, protest at being labeled as exploitative and have played down the notion that their activity in Africa is self-interested. Not oblivious to being perceived as exploitative, one Chinese businessman recently said, "We have a large market in China, and here, there is the land and the workforce ... Have I come to exploit? On the contrary, I come to invest. I'm throwing money here."
Many within China argue that moving a significant portion of its food-growing industry to Africa is unrealistic, citing poor infrastructure, high shipping costs, and unstable governments. Ministry of Agriculture official Xie Guoli recently stated, "It is not realistic to grow grains overseas, particularly in Africa or South America. There are so many people starving in Africa, can you ship the grains back to China? The cost will be very high as well as the risk."
In other words, even if China did intend to import large amounts of African grains, it would not be economically viable or efficient to do so.
Chinese investment is often geared directly at addressing Africa's hunger problems. For example, China plans to build an agricultural demonstration center in Mozambique that will test the durability of various crops that could be introduced to help feed the Mozambican population. In Kampala, China is funding projects to increase awareness of sustainable fishing practices in an effort to ease the overfishing of Lake Victoria - the source of much of the fish-heavy diet in Uganda.
On further review, China's investments strategies in Africa are not as self-serving as some critics argue. The discussion of China's desire to grow rice in Mozambique is incomplete without mention of China's recent attention to biotechnology and China's role in the biotech movement in general.
Over the last two decades, China has invested heavily in agricultural biotechnology, working with peanuts, peppers, tobacco, tomatoes, and other genetically modified organisms. Recently, this research has focused on engineering rice that is both tougher and healthier than traditional rice seeds. A recent report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications indicated that because of its implications for the world's hungry, rice is "the most important of the new biotech crops that are now ready for adoption".
In March 2009, the Chinese Academy of Agriculture (CCA) began a project funded by the Gates Foundation entitled "Green Super Rice for the Resource Poor of Asia and Africa". The project will bring high-yield rice varieties designed to withstand drought, flooding, harsh weather, and various toxins, to seven African countries. Working with several international organizations - including the Africa Rice Center - the CCA estimates that the project will increase rice production by 20% and will help feed 20 million poverty-stricken farmers in participating countries.
A recent report commissioned by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) highlights China's successful use of genetically modified rice to feed its population, and indicates that Africa has much to learn from China's domestic agricultural investment. Thus, China's push to introduce rice in non-rice-consuming African nations could be understood as part of a larger strategy to introduce durable, productive and nutritious staples into the Africa diet, and not as evidence of suspicious motives as discussed above.
China's agricultural strategy in Africa has indeed brought unprecedented investment to the agricultural sectors of many nations. Nigerian economist Jonas Chianu commented that trading land rights for overall development is a way forward. Without the Chinese, under-utilized farmland would remain unproductive, benefiting no one. Chianu stated, "Instead of allowing the resources to lie unexploited it is better to embark on lease arrangements."
While China has invested immense sums in African agriculture, it appears that - at least thus far - the majority of these funds have not gone directly to securing land leases.
And where China has invested in land rights, it has tended towards creating cooperative projects. China certainly has the resources to more aggressively pursue exclusive land deals. Yet, thus far, it has not. This focus on cooperatives and on infrastructure over hard land assets suggests a more complex, possibly more cooperative approach on China's part.
It is perhaps naive to believe that China will not ultimately take advantage of vulnerable food resources in Africa to some degree or that China would readily agree to an international standard on foreign agricultural investment. And indeed, African nations may be best served by enacting stronger local land-use policies and demanding more specific agreements, as suggested by Van Braun. However, despite the potential pitfalls, China's investment in Africa has the potential to significantly change agriculture on the continent. Unprecedented improvements to infrastructure, increases in education and available technology, and an influx of investment capital could bring sustainable solutions to Africa's food troubles.
Upon closer analysis, China has not earned its harsh reputation. Perhaps in an attempt to reassure its increasingly important African allies, China appears to be exhibiting more caution than it has in the past. Thus far, this caution has differentiated China's agricultural investment in Africa from its other investment projects on the continent. How long this caution lasts and whether the advancements discussed above will ultimately outweigh the potential negative consequences of China's investment in Africa remains to be seen.Carl Rubinstein is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.