Small farmers at risk in land scramble

Financial Times | August 11 2008

By Murithi Mutiga in London

Small-scale farmers with limited knowledge of their rights stand to lose most as countries such as China and Saudi Arabia expand their quest for African farmland, analysts have warned.

High commodity prices and surging demand at home have seen countries in the Middle East and Asia seek to tap into Africa to feed their domestic markets.

But the scramble for land is often taking place in weak legal environments in which most farmers lack formal tenure rights or access to compensation mechanisms.

Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development and author of a new report on the impact of land transfers in Africa, said there is a false perception that there are vast, empty tracts of land in Africa that can be hived off with little consequence. “The problem is that local communities have a genuine stake in land which is unrecognised in law. Giving away land without consulting these communities will lead to gross disparities,” she said.

The United Arab Emirates has also expressed interest in securing leases and the Egyptian government has held talks with Sudan. Other investors are looking to countries such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Senegal and Nigeria for farmland.

Tanzanian lawyer Ednah Mndeme, who works for the Lawyers Environmental Action Group, which campaigns for land rights, said legal reforms should precede large-scale deals offering land to investors.

Local communities, she said, have claims to land dating back centuries and view it not only for agriculture but as a part of their social and political systems. But in many African countries they have only user rights rather than formal tenure.

“It is important that governments set down an acceptable procedure for transfer of land that involves negotiation with local communities and allows them to assert their rights,” she said.

Calestous Juma, a Harvard University professor who heads the Victoria Institute of Science and Technology, which is working to boost productivity in western Kenya, said land reform should make Africa a more attractive destination for foreign investors, while also enabling local farmers to access capital and improve their own agricultural productivity.

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