Land grabs: the threat to African women’s livelihoods

(Photo: ActionAid)

Open Democracy | 10 February 2012

Land grabs: the threat to African women’s livelihoods

Despite the African Union's commitment to strengthening women's access and control of land by placing land rights in the public domain of human rights, it is silent on the issue of land grabs. This is a gap that the AU's land policy framework needs to plug, says Kathambi Kinoti
About the author
Kathambi Kinoti is a Women's Rights Information Coordinator at the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), South Africa

In the last decade foreign companies or governments have acquired 227 million hectares of land in Africa, according to a recent report by Oxfam.  These acquisitions are commonly known as land grabs since land is acquired either on the basis of an agreement between parties with unequal bargaining power, or through covert means.  Land grabs are taking place in the context of increasingly scarce resources, rising food prices and the need for renewable fuel sources. Countries affected include Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Madagascar, Mozambique, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.

Taking advantage of cheap land and labour in Africa, foreign companies and states acquire land either to grow food crops for external markets or to grow biofuels.  The European Union has set a target for its member states to obtain no less than 10% of their transportation fuel from renewable sources by 2020. This requirement has spurred land grabs for the production of crops such as jatropha, sweet sorghum and palm oil. Well-meaning endeavours in one region to slow down or halt climate change are threatening food security, the availability of water, livelihoods and – ironically – spurring deforestation and the reduction of wildlife habitats  in another region. Land grabs are also a potential source of conflict.

Jatropha is a ‘wonder’ non-food crop that produces high yields of oil and is reputed to need little water or labour investment. However experiences in  Mozambique have shown that growing the crop requires a significant initial investment in water and tending, and needs expensive pesticides. Food crops such as soya beans, sugar cane and corn are also biofuel crops, and their cultivation may push food prices up threatening the food security of local communities. While jobs are often promised to communities that give up their land, these jobs are often few and poorly paid. Moreover, unlike traditional farming methods, large-scale commercial farming tends to be greatly mechanized and limits the need for human labour. It is estimated that only one job is created for every 100 hectares of biofuel crops planted.

Currently, only 38% of Africa's population is urban-based. Even though African women do most of the work related to food production, processing and marketing,  for the most part their land rights are not secure as they are derived through their male kin, whose own rights are now made insecure by land grabs. In Tanzania, land rights of whole communities have often been signed off by village heads. And already tenuous, women’s land ownership and user rights are further threatened by land grabs.

Tanzania’s north-western region of Shinyanga, is a diamond-mining haven, but commercial interests mean that much of the land is not available to indigenous Tanzanians.  In 2009, in Loliondo in the north-east of the country, the Tanzanian army forcibly evicted Maasai pastoralists from their ancestral land to clear the area for an Arab investor setting up hunting grounds for tourism.  The Maasai were not consulted about the sale of their ancestral land. The operation to displace them was particularly brutal: people were beaten, women raped and homes burnt to the ground. The pastoralists’ displacement to Morogoro, where there is already a farming population, is fostering land use conflict.

According to the Oxfam report, in Ethiopia women are routinely dispossessed of their homes and land when their husbands die or are separated from them, and they resort to subsistence farming on so called ‘marginal’ or infertile land, and gathering fuel, for survival.  When these pieces of land are targeted for growing biofuels, poor women loose access to even this land.  In Ghana where women do have user rights under customary law, to grow crops like cocoa, shea and oil palms, land grabs negatively affect women whose livelihoods depend on these cash crops.

Land grabbing investors also promise opportunities for employment for local communities, but this is often misleading as skilled workers are brought in from other countries. For instance in Mali, a rice cultivation project employed skilled Chinese workers as supervisors and denied training and well paid jobs to locals. In Tanzania, a biofuel scheme went bust leaving hundreds jobless.  And even if jobs are made available, in patriarchal societies in Africa it is the men who benefit from these opportunities while women carry out reproductive roles at home. Women are also further disadvantaged by their lower levels of education and lack of academic qualifications and experience necessary for the foreign firms’ requirements.

Despite their complicity in land grabbing in their own countries, African governments in 2009 under the auspices of the African Union (AU) adopted the Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa.  The Guidelines among other things call on states to “prioritize land policy development and ensure that land laws provide for equitable access to land and related processes among all land users.” Given the past and present experience of forcible displacements, signing away of land and water rights and other increasing hardships for locals, it is clear that several African governments are prioritising foreign capital investment over the well being of their own citizens. 

The Guidelines recognizes the role of patriarchy in restricting women’s ownership and control of land, and the role of colonization in cementing patriarchy in land ownership laws by “conferring title and inheritance rights on male family members” and permitting discrimination against women on matters of personal law (marriage and inheritance). The Framework and Guidelines say: “If law and policy are to redress gender imbalances in land holding and use, it is necessary to deconstruct, reconstruct and reconceptualise existing rules of property in land under both customary and statutory law in ways that strengthen women’s access and control of land while respecting family and other social networks.”

They recommend that states enact laws that secure women’s land ownership rights regardless of marital status, allow them to inherit and bequeath land on an equal basis, allow for co-ownership by spouses of registered land and promote women’s participation in land administration structures.

The Guidelines go on to say: “To ensure full enjoyment of land rights, these measures must be part of an ideology which removes issues regarding the land rights of women from the private sphere of marriage and family, and places them in the public domain of human rights.”  In holding governments to account, the current subordinate status of women’s land rights must be addressed alongside other land rights concerns as prescribed by the Guidelines.

Despite their progressive language on women’s rights, the Framework and Guidelines are silent on the issue of land grabs, and this is a gap that the AU needs to plug.

At the global level, there are two key processes that are aimed at addressing land grabs: the World Bank-initiated Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) principles, and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests developed by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). Civil society organizations on the whole prefer to engage with the Voluntary Guidelines process because it is more inclusive and has incorporated their input at various stages.

While they do not directly address land grabs, the Guidelines call upon states to “establish safeguards to avoid infringing on or extinguishing tenure rights of others, including those rights that are considered legitimate but are not currently protected by law. In particular, safeguards should protect women and the vulnerable who hold subsidiary rights, such as gathering rights.”

Women’s rights organizations need to get involved in these regional and global processes to ensure that women’s rights are secured. They need to urge that climate change and land grab discourses be linked together since the rise of biofuel production is proving to be detrimental for African women. Climate change mitigation measures must be cognizant of women’s land ownership and user rights, and not serve to further burden them. Hundreds of organisations around the world are calling for a stop to land grabs.  The Rio +20 conference on sustainable development in Brazil later year is an opportunity for women’s and other human rights groups to place this firmly on the international agenda.  At the community level women need to recognise themselves as actors who can mobilise to resist processes that continue to exclude them.

Another version of this article is available on the AWID website.

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