INTERVIEW-Foreign land grabs for food could fuel unrest
Reuters | 02.18.09

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME, Feb 18 (Reuters) -- Big purchases of African land by richer countries in a drive for food security could fuel unrest if the rights of local farmers are not taken into consideration, a land rights campaigner warned on Wednesday.

Madiodio Niasse, director of the International Land Coalition -- which brings together intergovernmental organisations and civil society groups to promote land rights in poor nations -- said there was a general lack of transparency in international land transactions that needed to be addressed.

Middle Eastern countries flush with oil cash but also Asian nations worried about their food security have begun buying large swathes of farmland abroad after a supply scare last year drove prices of most food items to record highs.

"Since the middle of 2008, there has been this huge international trend of purchasing land abroad. Our fear is that if it's not organised and regulated, it will have counterproductive effects and could lead to social unrest," Niasse told Reuters in an interview.

Saudi Arabia's Hail Agricultural Development Co this week announced it had acquired farming land in Sudan to plant wheat, corn, soy and livestock feed in a project that could be worth $45 million.

South Korea's Daewoo Logistics is pursuing a massive corn plantation project in Madagascar, although it said last week that may have to be delayed due to the country's political instability and weak commodity prices.

Without referring to any particular deal, Niasse said the terms of many such land transactions, and who would benefit from them, were not clear and information about them was "not available".

"Is the land in question empty or do people live on it? Where is the irrigation water coming from, how is the plantation going to be developed, who will work on it, where will the money go? There is no transparency at all," he said on the sidelines of a meeting of the U.N. farm agency IFAD in Rome.

While the inflow of foreign money and technology know-how could help increase the low productivity of African farmlands, Niasse said a code of conduct was needed to make sure local farmers were involved in any development project.

"It has to be a guided process, the local people affected have to be consulted and considered. We want a win-win situation where these projects can generate employment and give African farmers access to modern seeds, technological support and credit," he said. (Editing by Anthony Barker)
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