Land for grabs: Win-win or neo-colonialism?

France 24 | 25 December 2009

Some compare it to a hold up on land; others say it is a development booster. Experts, politicians and Non governmental organizations disagree on their analysis of what is called “land-grabbing”-or the acquisition of farm lands- a practice on the increase.



The rush to buy land has become a cause of economic war between investors, eager to buy large and fertile properties.

Multinationals and investment funds are among those who buy land, a recent and striking example being that of an acquisition of land by a South-Korean multinational in Madagascar. Daewoo leased 1,3 million hectares - more than half of the country’s farmland- to own and farm for 99 years. In exchange Daewoo did promise to create jobs and infrastructure. This particular deal had a devastating effect on public opinion, eventually leading to president Ravalomanana’s fall.

Among nations buying farmland, China is considered a leader. Other buyers are South Africa, Saudi Arabia or the Emirates; all countries that lack the necessary farmland to feed their own populations. The recent food crisis has been an important factor in these countries’ decisions to invest directly in land rather than continuing to depend on imports, thus trying to protect themselves from soaring prices.

All continents are concerned

Approximately 10 million hectares were sold in 2008; mainly in Africa and South America. But Asia, Eastern Europe and Australia have also participated in transactions while Pakistan, Indonesia, Ukraine and Romania are sought after for cereal culture.

Land grabbing is increasing as more and more deals are sealed and chunks of land sold off. The consequences of these sales for the areas affected are numerous according to Jeanne Zoundjihékpon from international NGO Grain, “Land is a fundamental part of life in Africa, if farmers sell their lands, traditional values will disappear with them and the society as a whole will suffer from it. But it is not just that; food security is also threatened. Local farmers will depend on what the new owners produce and on the prices they impose. Food will become even more expensive if what they produce is destined to make bio fuel. Finally, practicing monoculture on large surfaces is a direct threat to local biodiversity.”

Agrarian neo-colonialism ?

In Benin, like in other African countries, transactions are organised by local intermediates. These “negotiators” are in a better position to approach local farmers who are less weary of people from their own communities. They are accused of tricking farmers into selling their lands, “Farmers are fooled by lies from these intermediates. Once the transaction is finished, they find themselves unemployed because the new owners don’t hire them. They then have to leave their village to search for jobs in cities”, says Nestor Mahinou, head of Synergie paysanne, a farmer’s union in Benin.

Taking advantage of the opacity of land-laws in many developing countries, investors are often the winners in these transactions, whether they are sales or lease-holds. According to Nestor Mahinou “The intermediaries get a commission that can go up to 50% of the price at which the land is sold”.

Poverty and the lack of modern agricultural infrastructure can lead to some politicians facilitating the entry of foreign multinationals into their countries.

As a response many local associations and international NGOs are demanding that traditional land laws be modified to put an end to transactions they deem unfair and potentially dangerous enough to cause a humanitarian catastrophe if they are not stopped.

A report by Alexandra Renard, Melissa Bell, Mounia Ben Aïssa and Maud Jullien.

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