Broken promises: rural women hit hardest by corporate land deals

Tatu in Tanzania, a female food hero finalist in 2012, harvesting potatoes that she sells, along with other vegetables, in the city of Dar es Salaam some 350kms away. Photo: Marc Wegerif/Oxfam

Oxfam | 9 April, 2013

Broken promises: rural women hit hardest by corporate land deals

Small-scale women farmers are the backbone of Africa's food system, but, as corporations buy up huge swathes of rural land, they are losing out at every turn. Marc Wegerif introduces a new Oxfam briefing paper, which looks at the great challenges facing women small-scale farmers, and also gives a highlights of Oxfam's Food Heroes who perhaps show us where to go next.

Today we launch a new Oxfam Briefing Paper: “Promises, Power, and Poverty: Corporate land deals and rural women in Africa”. The title reflects the unfortunate finding from recent research that the promises of development benefits from corporate land-based investments are not materializing.

Instead unequal power relations, including widespread gender discrimination, have resulted in many rural women loosing access to land and being pushed into greater poverty due to such investments. Men are also affected, but the failure to listen to rural women and involve them in decision making leaves them with more of the negative outcomes and fewer, if any, benefits.

This has serious implications for people’s right to food, given the important role women play in food production. The Food and Agriculture Organization and others have shown that women produce most of the world’s food and “are primarily responsible for preparing, storing and processing food”.

These investments, or ‘land grabs’, are happening on an alarming scale and are becoming a substantial driver of human-rights violations and rural poverty.

“Our crops burned, our homes destroyed”

The new Oxfam paper is based on research carried out during 2012 on three cases in different African countries along with a review of existing research and reports. We set out to hear from rural women affected by land investments, looking for positive and negative impacts. The following quotes are a taste of what we heard:

  • “We were chased away like dogs, our crops burned, our homes destroyed.”

  • “I have lost my land to the foreigners who came and put fences around our land as they have told us they bought the land.”

  • “I was nine months pregnant when they [the company] entered my farm. I stood there shivering as I watched them destroy my yam, pepper, maize and plantain.”

  • “I used to grow maize, sweet potatoes, water melons and beans. My family had enough to eat but now we have to rely on piece meal jobs and food parcels.”

The companies involved all appear credible and promise positive development impacts and I do not believe they are the worst offenders; I have heard about too many other worse cases. The problems we see are not due to a few rogue companies, rather this is the widespread result of corporations taking advantage of weak rights, in particular of rural women, to maximize profits.

It is not just through the loss of land that these corporate investments impact rural women. It is also the capital and input intensive mode of agriculture they practice that affects the environment and people’s access to water. At the same time, while employment is presented as the main benefit, the jobs created are few and of poor quality, especially for women.

Female food heroes

What gives me hope is that I see small-scale women farmers showing real alternatives for agricultural development and food security. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, said in a recently released report: “Sharing power with women is a shortcut to reducing hunger and malnutrition, and is the single most effective step to realizing the right to food.”

In Tanzania, the female food hero awards have received thousands of nominations and many great stories of how women are using sustainable farming practices to overcome the challenges they face to succeed in feeding themselves, their families and their communities.

Over the last months I have been privileged to meet women farmers, not affected by corporate land investments, who Oxfam works with in other countries. For example, Bedria, in Ethiopia, who, after being a farm laborer for years, realized she could be better off carrying out her own production. She grows a variety of seedlings of crops, including onions and tomatoes, on a small piece of land (less than half a hectare in size), that she sells to larger farmers for a quicker and larger turnover.

In Zambia, I met Valentina who, along with other farmers in the area, has recently gone into soy bean farming as there is a good market for that there. She continues to produce other food crops for her family’s consumption and for sale in local markets.

These women produce a wide variety of food crops that are essential in creating a healthy diet for their families. They also produce surpluses that they sell locally, to national markets and sometimes to international markets. They are not stuck in a poverty trap of farming, as some allege of small farmers, they are innovating with new crops and techniques, improving their lives, and exploring other business opportunities.

Such women and other small-scale farmers offer an opportunity for inclusive and sustainable development. Their success needs to be built on rather than destroyed, as has happened to women interviewed for Promises, Power, and Poverty. What is essential is the strengthening of women’s ecologically sound food production along with rural women’s organization so they can improve the return they get from their hard work and assert their rights in the face of the threat from corporate investors.

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